GAZA » In its latest attempt to try to impose a conservative Islamic way of life on Gaza, Hamas started this weekend to enforce a ban on smoking water pipes in public.
A spokesman for the Hamas police, Ayman al-Batniji, said that the ban applied only to women and that it was in line with "the Palestinian people’s customs and traditions."
But many cafe owners said they had been ordered to ban water pipes for both men and women.
Smoking large water pipes, called shisha, usually with bowls of flavored tobacco, is a longstanding pastime here.
Plainclothes members of the Hamas security services have been inspecting cafes along the Gaza City beachfront, including men-only establishments like Al Shera Cafe, where men go to drink coffee, tea and soft drinks while playing cards.
Ahmed Yazji, manager of the Orient House Hotel in Gaza city, said the conflicting orders were confusing. Plainclothes policemen "come to check and still order us not to serve shisha to anybody," he said, "though we hear the order has been amended to include only women."
Hamas has a vague and bewildering record when it comes to such campaigns.
Last year, for example, the authorities issued similar verbal orders against women smoking water pipes, but the ban was not enforced.
Some have ascribed the confusion to disagreements within Hamas as guardians of religious morality, some self-appointed, others within the government, have sought to impose their own views.
On Friday night, a bearded man in plainclothes with a pistol entered the Al Shera Cafe, and nodded his head in satisfaction that no shisha was being smoked. The receptionist asked him how long the ban would stay in place.
"Until a different, new order is issued," the man with the pistol replied.
Alaa al-Kurd, who runs a makeshift cafeteria for three months every summer, said shisha smokers made up 70 percent of his customers.
He used to make 200 to 250 bowls of tobacco a day and sell them for seven shekels, or just under $2 each.
Now most of the people who come to the men’s section leave when they hear they cannot get a water pipe, he said.
He said he had paid thousands of dollars to rent the land for the cafeteria from the municipality, which is run by Hamas.
He said the municipality should have clarified that shisha would be banned before he had paid the rent.
Khalil Abu Shamala, director of Al Dameer Association for Human Rights, said that banning smoking for health reasons would be welcome, but the recent decision "seems to be serving Hamas’ own program."
He noted that people sitting at the cafes on Friday night were still smoking cigarettes.