GAZA CITY (AFP) — First it went after drug dealers, then booze and car theft. Now the Palestinian movement Hamas, which seized power in Gaza a year ago, is taking on another challenge to its self-styled Islamist rule -- Internet pornography.
"A couple of weeks ago Hamas installed a filter to prevent people from accessing such pages on the net," said Ali Sarayfi who runs an Internet cafe in the university area of Gaza City.
Inside the cafe dozens of young people are glued to computer monitors, surfing the Internet and enjoying one of their last remaining links to the world outside the fenced-off territory.
Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip on June 15 last year after routing forces loyal to the secular Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Israel has sealed the impoverished territory off from all but limited humanitarian aid.
With the economy teetering on the edge of collapse and the vast majority of Gaza's residents out of work, the Internet cafes are one of the last affordable recreational outlets available to the territory's 1.5 million people.
Huddled in cubicles and sporting nervous smiles, their attention is focused on online role-playing games such as Counter Strike. Others check to see if they have any messages on the social networking site Facebook.
"Before, anyone could gain access to sites with sexual content, and some people even came here to do just that," said Sarayfi. "But today that's all finished, and it's better that way."
In the past when some Internet cafe owners tried to prevent access to certain sites, "they were threatened. People in powerful Gaza families told them the windows in their shops would be broken," he added.
The current porn crackdown by Hamas was foreshadowed last year with the firebombing of several Gaza City establishments.
Most of the attacks were claimed by an extremist group calling itself "The Swords of Truth" that said Internet cafes offered young Palestinians access to pornographic websites.
In mid-May, the Hamas-run authorities in Gaza signed an accord with PalTel, the Palestinian telecommunications company, "to protect the sons of the Palestinian people and reinforce morale and Palestinian national concepts," according to the text of a memorandum obtained by AFP.
Under the terms of the agreement, PalTel -- the sole Internet service provider or ISP in the Palestinian territories -- filters out addresses to pornographic websites.
"Palestinian society suffers because of such immoral sites. We have therefore taken the decision to protect morality, and this remains our policy," Hamas telecommunications minister Yussef al-Mansi told AFP.
"After a year of talks with PalTel we've finally succeeding in blocking (pornographic sites)," he added.
Now Internet users are complaining -- not because porn sites are no longer available but because the mechanism blocking them has slowed connections to a crawl.
Legal adviser Sharhabil al-Zaim of PalTel management said Hamas "asked that access to these sites be blocked for all high-speed subscribers, but PalTel cannot install filters governing more than 5,000 subscribers."
Such capacity is minuscule, given the rising number of ADSL subscribers in the Gaza Strip that currently stands at more than 50,000, according to one PalTel source.
"For the past two weeks the net has been really slow. People don't want to have to wait two hours just to open a page," said Mohammed who runs an Internet cafe near the Islamic University of Gaza.
"It's all very well blocking porn sites, but they don't know how to do it properly and they're destroying our business," he added. "It only creates problems for companies and for students who really need the Internet."
Mansi, the Hamas minister, said that PalTel "has begun to resolve the problem -- connections are back up to 90 percent or near normal speed."
His claim would be disputed by anyone in Gaza with access to an Internet-linked computer. They can check the speed of a connection -- or lack of it -- for themselves.
But as always, savvy computer users have come up with a "workaround" or temporary fix to the problem -- downloadable software that allows the blocking filter to be bypassed.
Their ingenuity insures that even if Gaza continues to suffer from shortages of fuel, electricity, and basic goods, no siege will keep out the pornography that so troubles its hardline Islamist rulers.
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