Many Gazans have long lamented that there’s not much to do in the Gaza Strip. There are no movie theaters, pool halls or bowling alleys -- all of which are seen as “un-Islamic.” And it’s not getting any better. In fact, now, curbs are being extended further – to the Internet.
The Islamist Hamas movement that rules Gaza issued a new law this week that forces Gaza’s ten main internet providers to block all access to any websites with pornographic content.
"This move is aimed at preserving our morals,” Osama Al-Eisawi, Minister of Communication and Information Technology in the Hamas government said in a statement. “Our social fabric needs protection and we are actually protecting Internet users in Gaza.”
Al-Eisawi said that any Internet provider that does not obey the law will be closed down. He explained that the law is an extension of the one passed in 2008, when the filters to block pornography were put in place, but individual users could still choose to lift them. Now, that choice is no longer available.
Hamas officials say the law is being imposed in response to many requests from parents and what he called “other organizations.”
“We don’t aim at oppressing any freedom or censoring any political websites; we will just block the websites that have a pornographic nature,” Dr. Kamal Al-Masri, the Director General of Licensing at the Ministry of Communications said.
"We will stay in coordination with all the Internet providers in Gaza regarding this law. We have systems and technologies that will help us keep tracking those providers. If any provider breaks the law then they will be prosecuted or face a complete shut down," Al- Masri concluded.
Some in Gaza worried that the ban on pornography is just a first step to total control, arguing that in the future, Hamas could choose to block political websites. But most say the ban will not be effective, in any case. Gazans are considered to be especially Internet-savvy, some believe because it is so difficult for them to leave Gaza to travel abroad (they need permits from either Israel or Egypt to leave Gaza).
"I would like to think of myself and others as grown-up adults who have the freedom of choice over whether to put filters on our Internet connection or not,” Adam Al-Agha, a student sitting in front of a computer screen at an Internet café told The Media Line. “Youth here are very advanced when it comes to technology --we can easily surpass this barrier using certain techniques.”
Other similar moves by the Islamist Hamas movement have failed to gain traction. Hamas first legislated against pornography with a law in 2008, but backed-off when Internet providers and the public protested. Hamas also tried to ban restaurants and coffee shops from selling hookah (water pipes with flavored tobacco that is popular throughout the Middle East), but the government amended the rule, saying men could smoke hookah in public but not women, for whom it is considered to be immodest. In each case, Hamas retracted the ban after protests. However, one rule that has been mostly enforced prohibits men from cutting women’s hair.
In response to the Internet law, though, some critics say Hamas is a strict Islamist movement that is trying to Islamize Gaza. Others consider the moralistic moves by Hamas to be a way of demonstrating its control over Gaza.
Officials from Pal-Tel (Palestinian Telecommunication Company), who preferred to remain anonymous, said the filters blocking pornography will slow down the Internet connection, frustrating many users.
A statement from the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology said there have been complaints that even non-pornographic websites were being censored.
"We are happy to receive any complaints,” the statement said. “Some non-pornographic websites were banned or could not open because of the Internet providers, not because of us.”
He said that some internet providers had technical issues after putting the filters on while others were differed over which websites should be blocked.
We are all working on fixing these little issues,” the statement said. “The filter is very new and it's normal to face mishaps at first.”
The statement ended with a warning: “We will soon issue the names of Internet providers who implemented this law and the names of those who broke it. Those who broke it will face legal charges.”