JERUSALEM — Inmates in Gaza’s main prison now can shave a year off their sentences if they grow a beard and memorize five chapters from the Koran.
Lesser feats of memorization will be rewarded with smaller sentence reductions; learning a single chapter will get a prisoner released a month early under new rules announced this week.
The program is intended to encourage prisoners “to behave according to the Koran’s law,” said the prison governor, Col. Abu al-Abed Hamid.
Memorizing the Koran may be difficult, but growing a beard should be no problem for the roughly 350 men in the jail. Reuters news agency reported last month that the prison barber, a convict himself, had posted a sign saying he has stopped shaving beards as an act of Islamic devotion.
The new rules are part of the fast-spreading Islamization of the Gaza Strip since Hamas militants seized control of the territory two months ago.
Israel’s Channel Two TV station, in a series this week devoted to the changing face of Gaza, showed its crowded streets looking more like Tehran than the Palestinian streets as they existed before Hamas’ rule.
Virtually every man was bearded and virtually every woman wore a head covering and a loose, floor-length cloak, generally black. Many of the women were veiled.
Some of the women interviewed by the Israeli Arab reporter expressed fear of venturing out of their houses bareheaded since the takeover by the militant Islamist movement. Men sporting new beards also said they were adjusting to the situation.
Ismail Haniyeh, who served as Palestinian prime minister until being unseated by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after the Hamas coup in June, denied that Hamas was setting up a militant Islamic state.
“We do not want to establish an Islamic state in the Gaza Strip,” Mr. Haniyeh told reporters.
Since its security forces drove Fatah loyalists out of the territory, Hamas has succeeded in imposing a large measure of order and residents have been able to relax along the strip’s Mediterranean beaches.
But the Islamic wave has also brought a spate of “honor killings” of women whose male relatives believed they compromised their families’ good names. At least 10 women are reported to have been killed since the Hamas takeover, three of them sisters.
Hamas leaders have condemned such killings, but the victory of the movement has encouraged extremists, some of whom have firebombed Internet cafes, pool halls and bars. An open-air music and dance festival was banned by a Hamas-run local council that found it in violation of Islamic customs.
A U.N. school in Gaza attended by local youths was attacked last month because it permitted boys and girls to participate together in sporting events. One person was killed.
Two months ago, gunmen attacked Gaza’s Latin Church and the Rosary Sisters School, destroying crosses, Bibles and pictures of Jesus. Such attacks were also condemned by the Hamas leadership.
Reporters taken on a public relations tour of Gaza last week by Hamas were introduced to a Catholic priest who refrained from criticizing Hamas, but local Christians have expressed uneasiness about the situation.
Sheik Abu Saqer, the leader of the radical Jihadia Salafiya movement in Gaza, recently announced that any of the 3,000 Christians in Gaza who engaged in “missionary activities” will be dealt with harshly.
“I expect our Christian neighbors to understand that the new Hamas rule means real changes,” he told the U.S.-based World Net Daily news service. “They must be ready for Islamic rule if they want to live in peace in Gaza.”
His remarks were challenged by Mr. Haniyeh.