Fighters wear masks to hide shame, instill fear

Every war has THE picture that captures its essence, and the Palestinian civil war in Gaza is no exception. My nominee would be the photograph of a Hamas fighter in Gaza, lounging in a senior Fatah official's office over which he has just taken control. The masked Hamas fighter in jeans is relaxing in an ornate chair, holding a rifle in one hand and speaking - through the opening in his mask - on a telephone in the other. It has the weird feel of a Gap ad for Halloween.

Fouad Ajami described the two sides of the Palestinian civil war as "the masked men of Fatah" and "masked men of Hamas." Indeed, the fact that masks were worn by the fighters on both sides is one of the unique things about this civil war - and it raises, for me, two questions. First, why were both the Hamas and Fatah fighters wearing ski masks? And two, where do you buy a ski mask in Gaza?

The first answer is habit. Hamas fighters always wore masks when confronting Israel, so that Israel could not identify them for retribution. On June 16, though, Reuters quoted a Hamas spokesman as saying masks should not be worn in the intra-Palestinian war. "Wearing masks should only be near the borders and in fighting the Zionist enemy, not in the streets and near people's homes," said Khaled Abu Hilal.

But certain habits, especially bad ones, die hard - and they can end up warping your own society as much as your enemy's. You can see what's happened here: If it's OK to wear masks when confronting the Jews, it eventually becomes OK to wear masks when confronting other Palestinians. If it becomes OK to use suicide bombers against the Jews, it eventually becomes OK to use suicide bombers against other Muslims. What goes around comes around.

Beyond old habits, though, there is also some new shame. These masks are worn by fighters who n ot only wish to shield themselves from Israel's gaze, but also from the gaze of their parents, friends and neighbors.

After generations of Arabs highlighting the justice and nobility of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, there was surely an element of shame that Palestinian brothers were killing brothers, throwing each other off rooftops, dragging each other from hospital beds and generally ripping apart Palestinian society in a naked power struggle.

Putting on a mask is also a way to gain power and enhance masculinity. People in black masks are always more frightening - not only physically, but because their sheer anonymity suggests that they answer to no one and no laws.

These masks announce one more thing: No leader can ever be sure of their allegiance. Every masked man is a general, and every militia is a cross between a self-funded criminal gang and a modern army.

Get used to it. In today's environment, where the big divide is between the world of order and the world of disorder, you can expect to see a lot more confrontations between armies in uniforms and helmets and armies in blue jeans and masks.

Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at The New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.