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Originally published July 29, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 29, 2007 at 2:05 AM

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Hamas markets Gaza as "safe, clean and green"

Hamas is embarking on a radical campaign to assure the world that it has no plans to turn the Gaza Strip into a Taliban-style police state.

McClatchy Newspapers

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — If you think of the Gaza Strip as a volatile, violent battleground run by fanatic Islamist militants bent on destroying Israel, Hamas wants you to think again.

Think: "Safe, clean and green."

One month after seizing the Gaza Strip in a military rout that shattered brittle Palestinian unity, Hamas is embarking on a radical marketing campaign to promote what it calls "the new face of Gaza."

They call it the "Gaza Riviera."

Lime-green Hamas banners flutter over Gaza City with a message in English for aid workers and journalists worried about being kidnapped: "No more threat for our foreign visitors and guests."

Bearded gunmen in blue-gray camouflage uniforms who helped seize control of Gaza now rush to settle routine neighborhood squabbles and family disputes.

Once-deserted Mediterranean beaches now are filled with dozens of families holding picnics to escape the summer heat until long after midnight.

Monday, Hamas is planning to take journalists on a special tour, from the packed beaches to the bullet-scarred security compounds its Islamist fighters overran last month when they ousted Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

While the United States and Israel are working to help Abbas transform the West Bank into a model of pro-Western modernity — and isolate and marginalize Hamas in the Gaza Strip in the process — Hamas is working to assure the world that it has no plans to turn the Gaza Strip into a Taliban-style police state.

"This is our new Riviera," boasted Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar. "This is the most secure period in the history of Gaza."

Using a mix of military force and political persuasion, Hamas has succeeded in creating a sense of safety in the Gaza Strip. But many Palestinians don't believe this quiet will last long.

Attacks on Internet cafes have come to a halt. For now, rival Gaza Strip families have stopped taking up arms to resolve disputes. And fears of renewed factional fighting between disciplined Hamas forces and demoralized Fatah fighters are virtually nil.

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But Hamas hasn't reined in Islamic Jihad and other militant groups, which regularly fire Qassam rockets at southern Israeli towns and could provoke an Israeli invasion. Israel routinely responds by launching airstrikes on Palestinian militants. On Thursday alone, five Palestinians were killed in several Israeli airstrikes.

The Hamas "safe streets" marketing campaign also obscures intractable problems facing Hamas — which was the leading perpetrator of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians between 2000 and 2005 — as it tries to use its impoverished base in Gaza to establish itself as a central political player in the new Middle East.

Hundreds of Gaza Strip police officers, judges and soldiers loyal to Abbas refuse to work for Hamas. Israel allows almost nothing but critical food and medical supplies across its border with Gaza, creating a shortage of everything from cigarettes to concrete mix. Major Gaza Strip factories, unable to get raw material in and finished goods out, have been shuttered.

U.N. officials and humanitarian groups have warned that the battered economy is in danger of collapse. And growing numbers of middle-class families quietly are preparing to escape as soon as the borders open.

Sitting on a southern Gaza Strip beach, Ahmed Yousef, the Hamas leader behind the "safe, clean and green" slogan, said his group has no plans to impose strict Islamic rule on the 1.5 million residents.

"If we succeed here, the people in the West Bank will keep looking to this model," Yousef said. "We don't want to promote the way of the Taliban."

Although Hamas still refuses to accept Israel as a neighbor, he urged Israel and the world to work with the group.

"You can actually deal with Hamas and work with them to moderate them," he said. "Don't make them your enemy."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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