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Brooklyn, New York (VICE) -- In 2007, we stood on the Israeli side of the Erez crossing , where we tried and failed to get into the Gaza Strip. Inside, a Palestinian civil war was taking place, pitting political and philosophical rivals Hamas and Fatah against each other. After a succession of assassinations, kidnappings and street battles, Hamas took complete control of Gaza, and for the first time in its history, had to figure out how to run a government. In 2011, when the post-Mubarak government of Egypt decided to start letting small numbers of folks into Gaza through their Rafah crossing, we knew it was our chance to finally get a rare glimpse of the embattled Gaza Strip and to see what life was like under the rule of Hamas.
Much of Hamas' popularity within Gaza comes from the fact that they are seen as incorruptible, and when they took power they put a concerted effort into stomping out all forms of vice in on their turf. But the same tunnels that allow Hamas to smuggle in weapons from Egypt also allow for a steady flow of drugs. When we met the members of the Hamas vice cops, they were eager to show off their "trophy case" which held a wide assortment of some of the drugs and paraphernalia they've confiscated on raids on homes around the Gaza Strip. Skull-shaped bongs, cocaine, hash, even tall-boy cans of Egyptian beer ... they had it all. But what stood out among all the standard illicit drugs was one called Tramadol. This prescription painkiller has become the drug of choice for young people looking to escape the reality of life in Gaza , something we witnessed during an evening stroll through Gaza City's central park.
Combine the widespread Tramadol with Hamas' strict approach to law and order, and soon you have a lot of young men behind bars. We visited Gaza's central prison, where drug users and drug smugglers alike are locked in a communal cell, their sentences ranging anywhere from one month, to death by hanging. Elsewhere in the same facility we met a woman who was imprisoned for the crime of having a child out of wedlock and another for helping her son escape from Gaza.
Hamas' firm hand seems to have resulted in a kind of orderliness that is not often seen in places that are as impoverished as Gaza. But it is order with a distinctly authoritarian flavor. The Hamas government operates in an environment of paranoia that has them on guard not only against the outside world, but against their brothers and sisters in Fatah, and against ordinary Gazans whose poverty they fear could tempt them into spying for Israel.
An authoritarian government operating within prison walls and under economic siege ... it sounds like the setup for a Kurt Russell movie, except that it's real.