GAZA The West is floundering in immorality and has no right to criticise the Islamist movement Hamas over the way it governs the Palestinian territory of Gaza, a veteran leader of the militant group said.
Hamas strategist Mahmoud Al-Zahar told Reuters in an interview that Islamic traditions deserved respect and he accused Europe of promoting promiscuity and political hypocrisy.
"We have the right to control our life according to our religion, not according to your religion. You have no religion, You are secular," said Zahar, who is one of the group's most influential and respected voices.
"You do not live like human beings. You do not (even) live like animals. You accept homosexuality. And now you criticise us?" he said earlier this week, speaking from his apartment building in the densely populated, Mediterranean city.
Hamas, which is an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement and means "zeal" in Arabic, won a fair, 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election and then seized control of Gaza in 2007 after routing rival forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas.
It said it acted to pre-empt a Western-bid to oust it and has ruled the enclave ever since, weathering an Israeli military assault at the end of 2008 and rigid economic sanctions tied to its refusal to recognise Israel or renounce violence.
Sitting in a cavernous reception room, with an old Mercedes saloon car parked in one corner, Zahar denounced European states, such as France, for recently introducing legislation preventing Muslim women from wearing full face veils in public.
"We are the ones who respect women and honour women ... not you," he said. "You use women as an animal. She has one husband and hundreds of thousands of boyfriends. You don't know who is the father of your sons, because of the way you respect women."
ISLAMISATION "NO CRIME"
Zahar speaks fluent English and serves as an important contact point between Hamas and Western governments, few of which recognise the group because of its hostility to Israel, but nonetheless have indirect ties.
Hamas has consolidated its control over Gaza, ridding the territory of the lawless clans that used to hold sway and imposing strict order on the 1.5 million residents.
Hamas faces criticism, including from within local society, for enforcing laws seen as "Islamising" Gaza by measures such as banning women riding motorcycles or smoking water pipes.
The movement sees its brand of political Islam as moderate and has crushed challenges from small groups which have adopted more radical views. The bearded-Zahar defended Hamas laws, but declined to say how far it would go with Islamisation.
"Is it a crime to Islamise the people? I am a Muslim living here according to our tradition. Why should I live under your tradition?" said Zahar, who served as Hamas foreign minister between 2006-2007 and is under constant, heavy protection.
"We understand you very well, You are poor people. Morally poor. Don't criticise us because of what we are."
Zahar, a surgeon who taught medicine at Gaza's Islamic University, said he was particularly incensed that Western nations could denounce Hamas while at the same time enjoying extremely close relations with neighbouring Israel.
The United States and European Union classify Hamas as a terrorist organisation and its charter calls for the destruction of Israel, although its leaders say they could live peacefully alongside the country under a prolonged cease-fire.
Hamas rejects the terrorist label, saying it is engaged in a legitimate struggle to free land illegally occupied by Israel.
It already observes a de facto cease-fire, but every month a drizzle of mortars and rockets pop out of Gaza and hit its arch foe. Israel blames Hamas for these random attacks and regularly launches air raids against suspected militant targets.
Two of Zahar's own sons have been killed in separate Israeli airstrikes, including one who died in a failed 2003 assassination attempt on Zahar himself.
"You should be ashamed of supporting Israel, You cannot support the foundation of Israel. Don't you care about the assassination of people here?" Zahar said.