GAZA CITY // The Hamas government of the Gaza Strip has for the first time appointed a woman to represent it to the world.
The hiring of Isra Almodallal as a spokeswoman for the territory’s Islamist rulers is part of a long-running push by the group, which has at times sought to curb women’s freedoms, to present a newer, friendlier face to its citizens and the international community.
Ms Almodallal, 23, who speaks fluent English, has assumed a post normally held by tough-talking men who voice Hamas’s bitter opposition to Israel. She will be responsible for the Gaza government’s communications with international media.
“We are looking forward to having a different and unique language,” said Ms Almodallal in her Gaza City office, during her first week on the job. “We will make the issues more human.”
The change in policy began six months ago when a new head of the government media department, Ihab Ghussein, took over. He hired younger media people, started a new government website, began rampant use of social media and started conducting seminars and workshops.
Mr Ghussein said he appointed Ms Almodallal in an effort “to be more open to the West”. He said many women were among the dozens of applicants considered for the position.
“Women are partners in our society.”
Ms Almodallal, a divorced mother of a four-year-old girl, does not have her roots in the Hamas movement. Unlike many other Hamas officials, her office does not bear a photo of Gaza’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. She keeps a book on American history there, alongside the Quran.
She was raised in Gaza and spent five years in Britain as a teenager, studying at Grange Technology College. Upon returning to Gaza, she studied journalism at the Islamic University and worked as a television reporter for a local station and an English-language satellite channel, which she said taught her how to present herself on camera.
Her appointment is the latest step by Hamas to manage its image.
“Hamas, as any other government in the world, want others to listen and believe in them,” said Moean Hassan, a lecturer in media at Gaza’s Palestine University.
Since the group seized control of the territory in 2007, it has cautiously attempted to instill its deeply conservative version of Islam and has at times placed some restrictions on women’s behaviour. But it has refrained from passing sweeping Sharia legislation, fearing a public backlash, despite criticisms form ultraconservatives who say it is not implementing Islamic law quickly enough.
Ms Almodallal takes a slightly different line than many Hamas spokesmen. She refers to “Israel” rather than the “Zionist entity”. And she does not consider herself a Hamas loyalist, saying she would be equally willing to work as spokeswoman for Fatah, the rival Palestinian government in the West Bank.
But she does believe – in line with the Hamas position – that the Palestinians should control all of historic Palestine, or the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, including what is now Israel.
She speaks primarily about Gaza government affairs: education and social programmes, and the Israeli blockade of the territory.
She will not discuss Hamas suicide bombings and other attacks, which have killed hundreds of Israelis over the years. Nor will she be handling the sensitive reconciliation attempts with Fatah. Spokesmen for the Hamas movement, as opposed to the Gaza government, deal with those subjects.
“I am not Hamas. I am a Palestinian activist who loves her country,” Ms Almodallal said.
When asked her opinion on Hamas’ history of suicide bombings against Israelis, she did not answer directly but said Israel’s unfair media coverage had given Hamas a bad reputation.
“This is because of the Israeli media, which is a smart media. They change the truth and show the opposite picture of Palestine and the Palestinians.”
She takes up the job at a challenging time for the movement. Hamas lost a key ally with the downfall of its parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt after a July 3 coup. The group remains a pariah to many nations in the West.
“I know it’s a big responsibility and it’s not easy to speak on behalf of a government in normal situations, whereas I am working in unique situations,” Ms Almodallal said.
* Associated Press