I love headlines like these Hamas women's wing takes up weapons 'for the love of jihad'
By Harry De Quetteville in Gaza City
They wear the long skirts and head coverings of modest Muslim women, but their draped robes are camouflage khaki and their scarves the distinctive lime green colour of the Palestinian militant group, Hamas.
Their shoulders bear the weight not of bags or babies carried by their more traditional peers, but rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
"We joined with only one single aim: jihad and resistance," a veiled spokeswoman told the official Hamas newspaper, Al Risala, as the troop paraded at a secret location in the territory recently re-occupied after Israel's disengagement.
Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel. The women's wing has not claimed responsibility for any attacks but in training exercises recorded by Hamas, members are seen learning to operate the unwieldy Qassam rockets. The group unleashed dozens last week, inflicting shrapnel wounds on several Israelis in towns bordering the Gaza Strip.
Israel responded with air strikes on suspected militant positions and threatening to renew its "decapitation" strikes on Hamas leaders. The militant group swiftly announced a ceasefire.
It was a "targeted assassination" that killed the Hamas leader Abdelaziz Rantisi in April last year as he travelled in a car near his Gaza City home. Now, in the flat where she lived with her husband, Rasha Rantisi has become a figurehead for the women rising through the Hamas ranks.
In a sparely furnished office on the second floor of her breeze-block apartment building, the only trace of Mrs Rantisi's late husband is a small photograph. It stands next to one of his predecessor at the top of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was also killed in an Israeli missile strike.
According to Israel, Palestinian militant groups increasingly use women to plan, support and carry out terror attacks. The Hamas gender revolution, however, is not just being played out on the front line.
Mrs Rantisi is animated as she describes the growing opportunities for Hamas women. "I speak for my sisters. Hamas has always honoured women, but now the time has come for Hamas to give a role to women," she said. "We can participate in health and education, and politics too."
Although there has been no official announcement of her future role, Mrs Rantisi hopes to build on the respect her husband commanded in Gaza. She is calling on women to take part in Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for next January, undeterred by the traditional patriarchal society.
"We are now headed towards a more difficult period. We are headed toward the phase of construction after liberation," she said in a recent address that was widely seen as an announcement of her own candidacy.
In the January polls, Hamas is expected to pose a strong challenge to the governing Fatah Party of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Although he enjoys widespread international backing, his support at home is fragile.
Hamas has set up nursery schools and clinics for lower middle-class Palestinians, increasing its popularity. Mrs Rantisi said that she oversaw 11 kindergartens, and lectured women on home economics, sewing and make-up.
In local elections last week the militant group captured 26 per cent of the vote, against Fatah's 54 per cent. Turnout was high, at about 81 per cent.
On the eve of polling, however, Hamas was mounting another deadly attack. Despite the ceasefire, it claimed responsibility for the kidnap and murder of an Israeli businessman whose body was found dumped in the West Bank.
Hamas said it had planned to use Sasson Nuriel, 55, as a bargaining chip to force Israel to release Palestinian prisoners. It shot him instead, claiming that his death came in retribution for Israeli attacks. Hamas later released a video of Mr Nuriel, blindfolded and bound with tape, shortly before his execution.
The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is bitterly opposed to Hamas's involvement in the elections. The ministry of foreign affairs said the murder proved that Hamas was not fit to stand.
If Mr Abbas hoped that the greater involvement of women would soften Hamas, whose determination to root out corruption in the PA has also proved popular, he will be disappointed.
Mrs Rantisi is inflexible about the need for religious law in the Palestinian territories. Any Hamas bloc in the 132-seat legislative council will press for sharia law. "I will not accept secularism," she said.
On Israel, too, Mrs Rantisi is unwavering. "I refuse any compromise," she said. "The liberation struggle will continue until we liberate all our land. Even if we enter elections our weapons will not grow dusty against Israel." SOURCE