Ismail Helou was working at his family’s petrol station on a Thursday afternoon when a police jeep pulled up. The plain-clothed officers ordered him to get into the vehicle. He was blindfolded and taken to a police station, where his legs were bound to a wooden plank and the soles of his feet were repeatedly beaten with a plastic pipe. Then they tried to shave off the gelled spikes of hair on his head.
“I was screaming and crying. It was the most painful thing I have ever faced. My feet were blue and I couldn’t walk for three days,” he said. Bruises on his soles were still visible three weeks later.
After the ordeal, Helou, 22, went to a barbershop to get his ravaged hair cropped. Now shorn of his one-inch spikes, he has been given no reason by the police for his detention and beating. But his experience is shared by other young men in Gaza City.
Over the past month, at least 40 men have had their heads shaved by Hamas officers in a pattern of intimidation and abuse aimed at enforcing Islamic mores governing personal appearance, according to the human rights organisation Al Mezan. The individuals have been targeted for sporting “western” hairstyles or wearing low-slung jeans that reveal underwear. But one, to whom the Guardian spoke, insisted he was guilty of neither “offence”, but was beaten and shaved simply as a mechanism of social control.
Hamas has revived a drive to impose Islamic social codes and behaviour in the tiny coastal territory it has controlled for the past six years. They cite a string of recent developments, including a new law to enforce gender segregation in schools and a ban on women’s participation in a marathon that resulted in the UN, its organiser, cancelling the event.
Earlier strictures included a prohibition on women smoking shisha pipes in public and riding pillion on motorcycles, and an attempt to force schoolgirls to observe religious dress codes. Some call this creeping “Islamicisation”; others say it has nothing to do with religion, describing it instead as “Hamasisation”.
But the humiliating and dehumanising punitive act of shaving heads is as likely to breed deep resentment of Hamas as it is to enforce behavioural conformity, say independent analysts.
What Hamas is doing in Gaza is just wrong, and is so far away from any religion or creed. It’s is a messed up system when you let one’s interpretation of a religious belief, mix that with power and politics and threaten the people in the name of a holy concept.