Last updated: 20 November, 2013

With a smile or a threat: the two faces of Gaza’s Hamas

Inside the Gaza government press office, a fresh-faced young woman makes her case in fluent English; outside, scowling bearded officials bark orders at masked militants.

In the Gaza Strip, the Islamist movement Hamas that runs it shows two faces.

Wearing a brightly coloured veil and smiling broadly, 23-year-old Israa al-Mudallal admits with disarming candour that she still has a lot to learn in her role as Hamas’s first-ever spokesperson for the foreign press.

Her job, she says, is to present “the views of the Palestinian government” — that is, the perspective of Hamas, which has ruled the impoverished Gaza Strip since ousting the forces of moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas six years ago.

“I don’t know, actually,” she admits, her British accent marked by a distinctive northern twang picked up from spending her teenage years in Bradford.

“I wanted to know; I wanted to ask people from inside (the government): ‘What’s your view on this,’ because I don’t belong to the Hamas movement.”

Born in Egypt, she grew up in Gaza then moved to England with her family so that her father, now a political scientist at Gaza’s Islamic University, could finish his doctorate.

Before taking on the job as Hamas’s English-language mouthpiece, Mudallal worked as a presenter on a local TV channel. An active participant in social networks and with one marriage already behind her, she describes herself “proud to be a divorced woman.”

A replica oud, or Arabic lute, stands on her desk, among books mostly in Arabic but also a copy of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations.”

‘Human issues are important’

Seated in front of a huge photo of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam, she fluidly runs through the traditional Palestinian claims but using language that gives the narrative a fresher, more modern emphasis.

“The human issues are the most important thing to talk about, especially the humanitarian crisis,” says Mudallal, who is descended from refugees who lived in a village near the port city of Ashdod in what is now southern Israel.

These days she lives in Rafah on Gaza’s border with Egypt.

“I live with my grandmother and she has Alzheimers. She only remembers her village, and her memories with her dad and trees, and weddings there, the sea there, the smells of lemon,” she says.

Hamas government spokesman Ihab al-Ghussein says the decision to employ a young English speaker was part of the movement’s strategy to communicate directly with the world.

“Appointing Israa is one of these means that we’re gonna use to try to talk to the West directly,” he told AFP.

“Whenever we put a lady who used to be an activist in the Palestinian issues to be a spokeswoman, it is a practical way to say that we believe in this youth.”

But Hamas demonstrates much less leniency towards activists who challenge its authority. Among them are those from the Tamarrod protest movement, who appealed through social networks for anti-government rallies on November 11, although hardly anyone showed up.

“This Tamarrod was just hot air, weaker than soap bubbles, weaker than the foam of the sea. Weaker than a cobweb!” said interior minister Fathi Hammad, waxing lyrical at a gathering of the security forces last week.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights condemned the “arrest campaign” launched by Hamas security forces who arrested dozens of people in the run-up to November 11, saying some of them had “subjected to torture.”

And on Thursday, thousands of masked Hamas militants marched through the streets of Gaza in a show of forced aimed at “the Israeli enemy and all those who would seek to weaken Hamas.”

Analyst Omar Shaaban warned against any attempts “to corner Hamas,” saying the movement, already under pressure after the overthrow by the Egyptian army in July of its Islamist ally president Mohamed Morsi, was likely to react violently.

“We’re not happy with the way (Hamas) have been managing the Gaza Strip, but we don’t want to go from bad to worse,” said Shaaban, who heads the think tank, Palthink.

“They will do whatever it takes to keep Gaza; there is no other place for them.”

Hamas is also struggling to cope with the consequences of the demolition of cross-border smuggling tunnels by the Egyptian army which has hobbled the flow of fuel into Gaza and brought its only power station grinding to a halt.

But in a display of an unexpected soft side, Al-Qassam Brigades hailed on Tuesday the birth of two lion cubs in the Gaza Strip, named in honour of the fight against the Israeli army in November 2012.

“A symbol of beauty, power and strength recently born in the besieged #Gaza Strip”, wrote the armed wing of the Islamist movement on its Twitter account, with pictures of the newborn cubs.