Palestinian university owes much to Hamas

University's image is linked to Hamas


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- At the Islamic University of Gaza, it was time for American literature class.

Professor Akram Habeeb informed his students that he was dropping Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter from the reading list. Hawthorne's novel about an adulteress in a Puritan village punished for her sins by being forced to wear the letter A on her dress would be too painful to read, he said, in light of the Palestinians' own troubles.

"We Palestinians are branded by the black letter T," he said, scrawling the letter on the blackboard.

"And what is the black T ?"

His students - all women, dressed modestly in headscarves and long robes - appeared puzzled.

"Give us a hint," one student said.

"Come on," Habeeb urged.

"Terrorists?" one student asked.

"Yeah, terrorists!" Habeeb said excitedly, before jettisoning the day's lesson for a lively discussion about the justifications for violence against Israel.

Over the past 28 years, the Islamic University has become a measure of the growth and strength of Islam among Palestinians, and of the growth and strength of Hamas, the militant Islamic group. Officially the university is an independent Palestinian institution dedicated to teaching and research. But its links to Hamas, now the dominant political force in Gaza, seem undeniable.

"Hamas built this institution," says Jameela El Shanty, a professor of education at the school and a newly elected Hamas member of the Palestinian parliament. "The university presents the philosophy of Hamas. If you want to know what Hamas is, you can know it from the university."

If outsiders wonder what Hamas has in store for Gaza and the West Bank, university officials say they should look no further than this campus for answers.

Its turquoise and white classroom buildings, palm trees and shaded courtyards are an island of tranquillity and order in Gaza's sea of poverty and chaos. The school, which began in tents and with a thatched-roof mosque, now has 17,000 students.

Male and female students attend classes in separate parts of the campus. Every lecture is given twice: once for men, a second time for women. Men and women enter the university through separate entrances, eat in separate cafeterias and use shared facilities like the library and science laboratories during separate hours.

Women are required to cover their heads. Men are discouraged from speaking to women or looking them in the eye. There is no dating, dancing or drinking. A call to prayer rings out across the campus five times a day.

In the eyes of Israel, Islamic University is a Hamas flagship, one used to incite hatred against Israel and recruit and train a new generation of supporters and leaders. Israel's hawks accuse the university of being a place where violence is an extracurricular activity and where professors labor late into the night in university labs researching ways to create more powerful weapons to be used against Israel.

"We are concerned that the institution's facilities could well be used for purposes of producing rockets and explosives," says Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.

Such accusations evoke disbelief from students and staff, who insist that their university is dedicated to furthering the education of Gaza's population - nothing more.

"People think it is a terrorist university," says Mohammed Ali Awad, 22, head of the university's student council. "But when they visit the university, they see it is civilized."

The school's administration goes further by rejecting suggestions that the institution is in any way linked to Hamas. The university is a religious school, administrators say, in the same tradition of Catholic institutions like Notre Dame University or the Mormon-run Brigham Young University. Islamic University officials say their campus is open to all political parties and people of all faiths.

"We think we are achieving the main goal of the university, which is to provide higher education to the community," says Kamalain Sha'ath, president of the university.

Any ties to Hamas, he insists, are purely coincidental. "Hamas is a big movement now. It is no secret that when we have student elections, the winning side is the Islamic bloc."

It is also no secret that in Palestinian elections last month at least 16 successful Hamas candidates were employees of the institution, according to university officials. Among them are Ismail Haniyeh, a graduate in Arabic literature who lectured and led the student movement at the university, and Mahmoud Zahar, a surgeon who lectured in the nursing school.

Haniyeh and Zahar follow in a long tradition of Hamas officials using the university as a base, including Hamas' founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, both assassinated by Israel in 2004. Hamas uses the campus frequently to hold its rallies and lectures, including a two-day conference last year on the "martyrdom" of Yassin.

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