It seems Palestine, too, has taken a more conservative approach towards local tourists and residents going to the beach, walking along Gaza shores and showing public display of affection. Apparently, Hamas police attempted to arrest 26-year-old freelance reporter Asma al-Ghoul walking with a man along the Gaza beach. The group of friends consisted of two women and three men passing time, walking on the northern Gaza shore.
Miss al-Ghoul was picked up by police on charges of indecent clothing and behavior. On the night of the arrest, she was wearing jeans and T-shirt – attire that is considered fairly provocative in Gaza’s conservative society and which could have easily attracted the attention of the plain-clothed Hamas vice police who patrol the beaches. She also swam in pants, fully dressed, with a girlfriend. Al-Ghoul’s male friends were beaten by Hamas police, kept in jail for several hours and asked to sign statements saying they would not violate public moral standards again, she said. The incident came as a surprise, worst yet, as shock to Palestinians who, for the first time were told about the news and apparent new Islamic law imposed by Hamas on the coastal area.
According to local news, this incident was the first time Hamas has openly tried to punish a woman for behaving in a way it views as un-Islamic since seizing power two years ago. The incident follows months of quiet pressure on Gaza’s overwhelmingly conservative 1.4 million residents to abide by its strict religious mores. The Hamas even ordered shop-owners to tear down ads showing silhouettes of women’s bodies on display and pull lingerie off the shelves.
Ironically, the Islamic hardliner’s stance comes to fore – a “culture” imported from ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia (where couples/ lovers innocently strolling on the beach or streets risk getting arrested by the religious police or Mutawa), while Gaza’s beaches are promoted to boost local tourism.
Not long ago, after Gaza’s disengagement, Palestinian tourism experts pinned their hopes high on internal or domestic tourism. One way of tapping the numbers on the Strip was to reintroduce Gaza’s beaches to the people of Palestine. Beaches were getting a lot of attention at the time.
For instance, Gaza’s Deir Al Balah is known for its beautiful beaches, golden bright sand, year-round sunshine; also great seafood, quality dates and ancient archaeology. The local destination has attracted native family vacationers and honeymooners in the midst of widespread instability. People from the West Bank thronged Gaza’s shores.
One serious issue Gaza tourism faces is increasing tourism traffic to Gaza, which has no access – neither from the sea nor air, not even land through Egyptian or Israeli borders. “It’s just inaccessible,” said a tourism adviser for former chief Bandak. “If we can only open and use the airport and seaport, the border crossings between Egypt and Gaza and Israel and Gaza, we will have some traffic. But people from Gaza just go through the fence out of a gate illegally. This boundary is closed off. If we all open the borders, tourists will flow freely,” he said.
About 32 km north of the Egyptian border, on the western Mediterranean coast, Gaza has become the economic hub for its citrus fruits and other produce, hand-woven carpets, wicker furniture and pottery, also fresh seafood. Several restaurants and parks lined the Mediterranean strip of Gaza, considered one of the most historic towns in the world. Nightlife in Gaza was vibrant and offered visitors fun evenings of entertainment, music and dance at the beachfront hotels.
Even ancient Gaza was a prosperous trade center and a stop on the caravan route between Egypt and Syria. First inhabited by the Canaanites and occupied by Egypt in the 15th century BC, it became a Philistine City several hundred years later. Around 600AD, it was captured by the Muslims. Gaza is mentioned a number of times in the Bible, especially as the site where Samson brought down the Philistine temple on himself and his enemies. Muslims believe it to be the site where Prophet Mohamed’s grandfather was buried. Consequently, it became an important Islamic center until the early 12th century when it was occupied by the Crusaders who built churches. Gaza, however, returned to Muslim control in 1187.
What had happened to al-Ghoul could be a reflection of a return to strict Muslim control of Gaza.
Meanwhile in a separate development, over 2,400 homes were destroyed in Gaza during the Israeli attack from December to January – 490 of them by F-16 air strikes. On top, 30 mosques, 29 educational institutions, 29 medical centers, 10 charitable organizations and 5 cement factories were also bombed. The Free Gaza boat named Spirit of Humanity was sent from Cyprus to aid the victims; there were 21 human rights and solidarity workers representing 11 different countries onboard who arrived. Passengers included Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire and former US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. The ship carried three tons of medical aid, children’s toys, and rehabilitation and reconstruction kits for twenty family homes.
Although over $4 billion in aid was promised to Gaza in the aftermath of the violent attacks, little humanitarian aid and no reconstruction supplies have been allowed in.