Friday, October 31, 2008
GAZA: The grooms were resplendent in white shirts while the brides all wore black. At a sports stadium one recent October evening, thousands of Palestinians 300 newly married couples along with relatives and friends gathered for a mass wedding celebration, the 10th here this year courtesy of Hamas.
Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza, has been observing a truce with Israel since June, allowing its underground fighters to resurface but leaving them without much to do. At the same time, hundreds of the group's women have been recently widowed, their husbands having been killed either in confrontations with Israel or in the fighting last year between Hamas and its secular rival, Fatah.
Taking advantage of the pause in violence, the Hamas leaders have turned to matchmaking, bringing together single fighters and widows, and providing dowries and wedding parties for the many here who cannot afford such trappings of matrimony.
"Marriage is the same as jihad," or holy war, said Muhammad Yousef, one recently married member of the Qassam Brigades, the Hamas underground. "With marriage, you are producing another generation that believes in resistance."
About 300 Qassam members, mostly in their 20s, signed up with their new wives for the most recent celebration, held at a sports stadium in the Tuffah district, east of Gaza City. Local mosques spread the word about the event and offered to help find spouses for single men whose families had not yet managed to arrange them a match.
As an added inducement, couples were promised a cash grant in lieu of a dowry, which few families could afford. But the economic embargo on Gaza, spearheaded by the Israelis who, like the United States and the European Union, classify Hamas as a terrorist organization, somewhat dampened the celebrations. While the poorest couples received a gift equivalent to $2,000, many others in less dire straits came away with only $200.
"That's the cost of a plank of wood for a bedroom suite," said one disappointed bride, Ola Dalo, 21, as she leaned her head on her new husband, Ali Msabah, 24.
Wael al-Zard, head of Al Taysir, an association affiliated with Hamas that tries to provide its fighters with the means to marry, said that many Muslims who used to contribute money from the Gulf states had stopped transferring funds "out of fear."
To make up some of the shortfall, Ismail Haniya, the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, made a personal contribution of $30,000 to the Tuffah group wedding, while another senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, contributed $10,000.
"Your money is not going to casinos," Zard declared during the wedding event. His point was that the donations would be devoted only to furthering the Islamist agenda, and not going to line officials' pockets, an accusation widely leveled against the previous rulers from Fatah. "There will be more weddings, and no one will remain single."
The 300 grooms were dressed in black pants, white shirts and colorful ties but no jackets, because of recent budget cuts. The brides, sitting separately among the women, wore head scarves and black robes over their evening dresses but were easily spotted by their heavy makeup. The couples had all signed marriage contracts before the event.
The grooms danced on the stage as a male singer extolled the virtues of married life. Ehab Adas, 25, one of the grooms, said he missed fighting but was keeping busy working as a secretary at the Interior Ministry. He pointed out his bride in the crowd, and proudly displayed the last text message he had received from her on his mobile phone. "Today is my real wedding," it read. He had replied simply, "I love you."
Although Hamas has long organized joint weddings, it is now doing so with more verve, placing special emphasis on remarrying its war widows. One of them, Amani Saed, 24, attended the mass wedding with her two young sons from her first marriage, Rami, 5, and Muhammad, 3. Their father, Khaled Saed, was killed at the age of 28 during the clashes between Hamas and Fatah in August 2007.
Eight months after Khaled's death, his father sought Amani's hand for his younger son, Muhammad, 22, who also worked at the Interior Ministry. Amani said she reluctantly agreed. "Muhammad is younger. It's hard, but it's good for the kids," she said.
Muhammad Yousef, the groom who equated marriage with jihad, came to celebrate and collect $200 even though his family is considered reasonably well off. In July 2006, an Israeli tank crew fired in his direction as he and his group fired rockets at Israel. He was badly wounded in the chest and both legs, and his friends took him for dead and celebrated his "martyrdom" on the way to the hospital morgue.
But he survived, and because of his severe physical injuries, moved from firing rockets to manufacturing them instead. Yousef said he shared all the details of his past with his wife before they married, and she accepted his way of life wholeheartedly. The night before the mass wedding party, he said, his wife shared with him her ultimate wish: to carry out a joint suicide attack against Israel.