Friday, March 9, 2007

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — A note on the door of Mohammed al-Shaer’s tiny music shop warned him that selling tapes and compact discs of popular Arabic music was “haram,” or forbidden by Islam.

He paid no heed until a bomb went off this week — the work of what Palestinian security officials suspect is a secret “vice squad” of Muslim militants.

“If they cared about their religion, they would [instead] stop people from killing each other,” Mr. al-Shaer, 19, said angrily.

About three dozen Internet cafes, music shops and even pharmacies have been attacked since October. The assailants detonated small bombs outside businesses at night, causing damage but no injuries.

The phenomenon is new even in violent Gaza, where more than 130 people have been killed in factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah in recent months. No credible claim of responsibility has emerged.

Police initially thought the attacks were part of local business disputes but now suspect an orchestrated campaign by extremists.

No arrests have been made, but Gaza police spokesman Ramzi Shaheen said that the modus operandi was the same in all cases. “We can’t exactly say who is behind this, but the repeated nature of the attacks leads us to certain conclusions,” he said.

In the town of Rafah on the Gaza-Egypt border last week, a huge bomb wrecked a pool hall in a building owned by Ramzi Abu Hilao, blowing out the front wall and littering the interior with metal scraps. He said he received no warning before the blast.

“I received a written message after the bombing from a group called the Swords of Truth that began with a verse from the Koran and said they wanted to correct the bad behavior in Palestinian society,” he said.

In conservative Gaza, devout Muslims would consider Internet cafes to be dens of vice because young men are known to view pornography there. Music shops could be a target because some fear pop music distracts from prayers. The targeting of pharmacies remains a mystery.

Fears of an Islamic crackdown have risen since Hamas took over the government a year ago. On Monday, Education Ministry officials said they removed an anthology of folk tales from school libraries because of explicit sexual language and destroyed 1,500 books.

Entertainment in Gaza is limited. With no movie theaters, youths find outlets in the Internet and music. Hundreds of small Internet cafes and music shops operate in Gaza.

Several music shops in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, have received warnings not to sell pop music.

Khamis Abdeen, 20, said he removed all but a few tapes and CDs, hoping he could sell them quickly. His shop was attacked earlier in the year. Merchandise worth $5,000 was damaged, he said. He has since stopped selling tapes.

In Gaza City, Shawki Abdel Karim, 39, said he has blocked access to adult sites on the computers in his Internet cafe. The cafe is segregated by sex: girls upstairs, boys downstairs.

“After I go home, all I can say is to pray to God to protect my place,” he said.

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