- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The large-screen television in the dimly lit Almond’s Bar and Restaurant glowed with images of jubilant children in green headbands celebrating Hamas’ stunning election landslide this week throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As the crowd of Palestinian university students trickled in Thursday evening, they ordered pints of beer and pondered what the Islamist militant party’s slogan of “reform and change” would bring after Hamas took majority control of parliament. Drink up, they chuckled to themselves, the next round could be their last before alcohol is banned.

“Soon the bars will be serving only zam zam on tap,” said Aissa Totah, 24, using the Arabic word for Islamic holy water. “That’s what’s going to happen.”

Nowhere is the hangover from the dawning of Hamas rule felt as acutely as Ramallah, the Palestinian cosmopolitan capital. In a city that’s the center of the Palestinian cultural, political and business elite, Hamas’ upheaval at the polls is stirring anxiety about international isolation and the passage of Islamic Shariah laws.

For secular yuppies, Hamas remains an unknown quantity — a fundamentalist voice of the Palestinian underclass without any experience in government. While there is genuine hope that Hamas will succeed in cleaning up the anarchy and bureaucratic mess bequeathed to them by the ruling Fatah party, they say the Islamists must change as well.

“They are going to have to do a[turnabout], or else the Palestinian people are going to get messed up,” said Bishara Kaoud, the 38-year-old owner of the bar.

In the run-up to the election, Almond’s regulars would gather at the pub to debate about whom to vote for. Mr. Kaoud said many longtime Fatah supporters crossed party lines — even passing up the smaller secular opposition — to vote for Hamas on purpose.

“It was to break [Fatah’s] neck,” he said. “Fatah deserves what it got.”

That sentiment underscores the part of the challenge facing the newly empowered Hamas establishment, which will control almost three-fifths of the 132-seat Palestinian parliament. Will the Islamists allow themselves to be swept away in the hubris of such a sweeping vote, or will they be able to soberly distill a political program from the anti-incumbent mandate?

The rise of Hamas reflects the increased influence of religion amid the economic blight and daily bloodshed of the past five years of conflict with Israel.

“I don’t mind people going to the mosques, but it’s like people have been brainwashed,” said Jack Thaounnus, the owner of a Ramallah jewelry shop who warned that Islamist rule could spur emigration of the Christian minority. “Do you think I’m going to let my wife wear a hijab [robe]?”

After campaigning under the slogan “Islam is the solution,” Hamas leaders have tried to calm Palestinian fears by denying reports they plan to legislate religious observance from parliament and work for a cultural makeover of the territories.

“A majority of Christians voted Hamas,” Osama Hamdan, a party leader based in Lebanon, told Al Jazeera television. “Hamas maintains good relations with Arab and European countries, but some Palestinians are trying to distort the image of Hamas.”

And yet, last summer, a Hamas-led municipality in the West Bank city of Qalqilya banned outdoor music and dance performances at a festival to prevent social mixing of men and women.

Palestinian political analyst Said Zeedani, however, said Hamas is unlikely to waste political capital on potentially controversial cultural legislation.

“They are not neutral when it comes to these things, but they’ll encounter resistance from Palestinian society if they activate the moral police,” he said.

The rise of Hamas may drive more Palestinians to observe rules of modesty in public, but places like Almond’s would keep operating, even if they go underground, some observers say.

“Nobody knows what is going to happen,” said Mr. Totah as he lined up a cue ball inside the pub’s pool room. “If we like it, we’re going to stay. And if we don’t like it, we’re going to leave.”

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