Ramallah, West Bank, July 13 - It's been a hot summer on the Palestinian arts scene: gunmen broke up the concert of a popular West Bank singer after he refused to limit his repertoire to political songs, and a Hamas-run town banned a music festival to prevent mingling of the sexes.

Now, Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish is striking back, saying fanatics have no right to deprive Palestinians of beauty in their lives. "There are Taliban-type elements in our society, and this is a very dangerous sign," Darwish told a gathering of artists and intellectuals this week.

It's not just an argument over artistic freedom, but over whether a future Palestinian state will be a theocracy or a pluralistic democracy.

Compared to other Arab societies, the Palestinians were once largely secular and tolerant of Western customs, even with Islam as the majority religion. Many Palestinians have strong ties with the West, including relatives living abroad or years spent studying in foreign universities.

However, more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have led some Palestinians to seek solace in religion or return to tradition, also a reflection of a regional trend.

Islamic fundamentalists, meanwhile, have become increasingly assertive. The militant Hamas group scored several victories in local elections in recent months, and expects to pull even with Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' secular Fatah movement in future parliamentary elections.

In the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, Hamas won local elections earlier this year with promises of better government services, but also with assurances it would not impose its religious beliefs. However, two weeks ago, Hamas banned a one-day music festival in town, arguing that the mingling of men and women at such an event was "haram," or forbidden by Islam.

Mustafa Sabri, spokesman for the Qalqiliya municipality, said the ban was democratic because it reflected the wish of the majority.

"We are not like the Taliban," Sabri said, referring to the Islamic fundamentalists who enforced harsh religious laws during their rule of Afghanistan. "But we respect them (the Taliban) because they chose something suitable for their people."

Mohannad Ghneim, 30, an ambulance driver from Qalqiliya who had hoped to attend the concerts, said he fears Hamas will increasingly try to meddle in his life. "Today, they ban a concert. Tomorrow they might ban satellite TV," he said.

Last week, music lovers got another jolt when gunmen broke up the concert of popular singer Amar Hassan at An Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus. Hassan shot to local fame last year after he came in second in a Lebanese TV version of "American Idol," a competition of aspiring artists in which fans vote for their favorites.

Before the Nablus show, militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades came to Hassan's hotel room. They told him he must sing only political songs, and cut love songs from his repertoire. The Al Aqsa gunmen, who have ties to Fatah, told Hassan that light-hearted entertainment is forbidden as long as Israel occupies the West Bank.

Hassan said he ignored the demands, and started his concert before a crowd of 6,000. During his show, dozens of gunmen and hundreds of protesters rallied outside the university's walls. Gunmen fired in the air and threw stun grenades, eventually forcing Hassan to break off the performance. As concertgoers left the campus, the protesters barged in, throwing chairs and scuffling with those leaving.

Hassan said in an interview Tuesday that he would not be silenced. "These people (the militants) don't want us to be happy.They want us to sit in the ruins and cry," he said. "We will wage a creative war against them, with more poems, more art, more singing."

A local Al Aqsa leader, Ahmed Al-Taki, said the group will continue to ban concerts.

On Monday, Darwish, a Palestinian cultural icon who has eloquently described his people's struggle for independence, rallied to Hassan's side, inviting him to a meeting with Palestinian intellectuals and artists in Ramallah. Darwish told participants "we all have to resist" attempts to restrict artists.

Darwish's comments were published Tuesday in the Palestinian newspaper Al Ayyam. The reclusive poet, who lives in Ramallah, was not available for comment.

The concerts in Qalqiliya and Nablus had been part of an attempt to restore a sense of normalcy after more than four years of fighting, said organizer Iman Hamouri. The summer concert series began in 1994, but was suspended during the Palestinian intifada.

Hassan Khader, a cultural affairs commentator for Al Ayyam, said Hamas is powerful enough now to impose its beliefs, but that he believes such attempts will eventually backfire at the polling booth. "If Hamas wants to be a political power, it can't force people to adopt its ideology," he said.

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