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Valentine's Day Forbidden by Islam; Gaza's Hamas Rulers Largely Look the Other Way

The odds are stacked against Valentine's Day in Hamas-ruled Gaza: The holiday is considered "haram," or forbidden by Islam, most residents don't have money for frills and the requisite red roses are grown only beyond a closed border with Israel.

Yet even Gazans managed to mark "Eid el Hob," or the Feast of Love, with a few splashes of red Thursday. Flower shops in Gaza City's better neighborhoods, displaying rows of flower-filled buckets and heart-shaped decorations, sold homegrown carnations to women in Islamic head scarves and dutiful husbands.

Hamas police looked the other way despite the religious taboo, reflecting the Islamic militants' policy of not going against popular consensus when it comes to social norms.

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Across the Arab world, attitudes toward Valentine's Day are a gauge for the level of fundamentalism. Devout Muslims believe that only Muslim holidays should be observed, opposing Valentine's Day as a Western celebration of romantic love that corrupts Muslim youth.

The holiday is outlawed in Saudi Arabia, where religious police enforce the ban, and conservative lawmakers in Kuwait said Wednesday they want to see Valentine's Day suppressed because it dilutes the nation's Arab and Muslim identity.

In Bahrain, which is more open than Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, flower shops imported about 150,000 roses in one week, or 20,000 more than last year, according to the Web site of the Al Arabiya TV station. In Cairo, small cruise boats on the Nile were decorated with red ribbons and hearts made of flashing red bulbs.

Dubai, a conservative Muslim city-state with a modern outlook and a pro-Western attitude, has been taken over by a Valentine craze in recent days. Malls, cafes and even offices were decorated with giant hearts. Five-course dinners and romantic getaways were sold out, and spas offered Valentine specials.

Valentine's Day was introduced to Gaza about a decade ago by Palestinian exiles returning from more cosmopolitan places such as Beirut and Tunis, following interim peace deals with Israel. The Internet and Arab satellite TV helped spread the idea, mostly among the young, educated and secular.

Yet in Gaza, the holiday of love remains a relatively modest affair, in part because few Gazans can afford to spend on extras, such as candy and flowers.

At a flower shop in Gaza City's Rimal neighborhood, 24-year-old Mohammed al-Wakid bought a rainbow-colored bouquet of carnations for his wife for $1.30.

That's a steal, even for Gaza, mainly because the territory is flooded with carnations that had been grown for export to Europe.

After the Hamas takeover, Israel and Egypt closed Gaza's borders, banning trade, and only a fraction of the millions of carnations grown in Gaza this season were sold to Europe under a limited arrangement with Israel. On Thursday, Gaza flower growers dumped carnations at the Sufa crossing with Israel in protest.

Al-Wakid, a policeman who's stayed off the job since the Hamas takeover, said he began buying flowers for Valentine's Day four years ago, when he was engaged. Since then, his wife has come to expect the gesture, he said.

Across the street at the Rose Flower Shop, two young women, one dressed in a black Islamic robe and head scarf, bought a bouquet of roses, a rare sight in Gaza. The shop had managed to bring in 500 roses from Israel, using Gaza medical patients treated in the Jewish state as "mules," and had about 50 roses left.

Salesman Mohammed Sussi, 30, said he hadn't received any complaints about his business. "They didn't tell us anything, whether from the government or anyone else, that it is 'haram'," he said.

But at a third flower shop, a TV crew earned angry glares from salespeople, and shoppers adamantly refused to be interviewed on camera. Asked why the reluctance, one salesman said his customers didn't want to be filmed doing something "haram."

Hamas police spokesman Islam Shahwan said Valentine's Day might go against Gaza's traditions, but Hamas is not trying to replace civil with Islamic law. "We are by nature a religious people and hate and reject all strange things," he said. "(But) we don't kill adulterers or gays or cut off the hands of thieves."