GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- At the Islamic University of Gaza, it was time for American literature class.
Professor Akram Habeeb informed his students that he was dropping Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter from the reading list. Hawthorne's novel about an adulteress in a Puritan village punished for her sins by being forced to wear the letter A on her dress would be too painful to read, he said, in light of the Palestinians' own troubles.
"We Palestinians are branded by the black letter T," he said, scrawling the letter on the blackboard.
"And what is the black T ?"
His students - all women, dressed modestly in headscarves and long robes - appeared puzzled.
"Give us a hint," one student said.
"Come on," Habeeb urged.
"Terrorists?" one student asked.
"Yeah, terrorists!" Habeeb said excitedly, before jettisoning the day's lesson for a lively discussion about the justifications for violence against Israel.
Over the past 28 years, the Islamic University has become a measure of the growth and strength of Islam among Palestinians, and of the growth and strength of Hamas, the militant Islamic group. Officially the university is an independent Palestinian institution dedicated to teaching and research. But its links to Hamas, now the dominant political force in Gaza, seem undeniable.
"Hamas built this institution," says Jameela El Shanty, a professor of education at the school and a newly elected Hamas member of the Palestinian parliament. "The university presents the philosophy of Hamas. If you want to know what Hamas is, you can know it from the university."
If outsiders wonder what Hamas has in store for Gaza and the West Bank, university officials say they should look no further than this campus for answers.
Its turquoise and white classroom buildings, palm trees and shaded courtyards are an island of tranquillity and order in Gaza's sea of poverty and chaos. The school, which began in tents and with a thatched-roof mosque, now has 17,000 students.
Male and female students attend classes in separate parts of the campus. Every lecture is given twice: once for men, a second time for women. Men and women enter the university through separate entrances, eat in separate cafeterias and use shared facilities like the library and science laboratories during separate hours.
Women are required to cover their heads. Men are discouraged from speaking to women or looking them in the eye. There is no dating, dancing or drinking. A call to prayer rings out across the campus five times a day.
In the eyes of Israel, Islamic University is a Hamas flagship, one used to incite hatred against Israel and recruit and train a new generation of supporters and leaders. Israel's hawks accuse the university of being a place where violence is an extracurricular activity and where professors labor late into the night in university labs researching ways to create more powerful weapons to be used against Israel.
"We are concerned that the institution's facilities could well be used for purposes of producing rockets and explosives," says Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.
Such accusations evoke disbelief from students and staff, who insist that their university is dedicated to furthering the education of Gaza's population - nothing more.
"People think it is a terrorist university," says Mohammed Ali Awad, 22, head of the university's student council. "But when they visit the university, they see it is civilized."
The school's administration goes further by rejecting suggestions that the institution is in any way linked to Hamas. The university is a religious school, administrators say, in the same tradition of Catholic institutions like Notre Dame University or the Mormon-run Brigham Young University. Islamic University officials say their campus is open to all political parties and people of all faiths.
"We think we are achieving the main goal of the university, which is to provide higher education to the community," says Kamalain Sha'ath, president of the university.
Any ties to Hamas, he insists, are purely coincidental. "Hamas is a big movement now. It is no secret that when we have student elections, the winning side is the Islamic bloc."
It is also no secret that in Palestinian elections last month at least 16 successful Hamas candidates were employees of the institution, according to university officials. Among them are Ismail Haniyeh, a graduate in Arabic literature who lectured and led the student movement at the university, and Mahmoud Zahar, a surgeon who lectured in the nursing school.
Haniyeh and Zahar follow in a long tradition of Hamas officials using the university as a base, including Hamas' founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, both assassinated by Israel in 2004. Hamas uses the campus frequently to hold its rallies and lectures, including a two-day conference last year on the "martyrdom" of Yassin.
Yassin opened the university in 1978 with assistance from Al Azhar University in Cairo. Israeli authorities, who controlled all activities in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, gave the institution space to flourish, hoping it would serve as a counterweight to the popularity of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.
But Israel's strategy backfired during the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, when the Islamic movement and Palestinian nationalists joined forces.
"At the time, Israel was not aware of what became so clear later that Islam and nationalism can mix together," says Shaul Mishal, a political scientist specializing in Palestinian politics at Tel Aviv University.
Israeli forces closed the school in 1987, along with other institutions. When the university reopened in 1991, the rival Al Azhar University opened as a secular alternative.
The division strengthened the fundamentalist character of Islamic University and further distanced the institution itself from Arafat's PLO, which had embraced the Oslo peace accords, which created a framework for Palestinian statehood.
Over the years, Arafat ordered police raids to the school to confiscate weapons and explosives and crack down on Islamic fundamentalists. Several students and faculty have had links to preparations for Hamas-led suicide bombings.
In October, Israel arrested a 22-year-old graduate of the university, who had moved to the West Bank from Gaza to get married, charging her with being the first female bomb maker for Hamas.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Halevi, a former Israeli intelligence officer, says the Islamic University has probably accounted for a larger percentage of violence than other institutions and its facilities are used to support violence:
"Hamas is not only focusing on religion but also on the practical information that can support the military wing," he said. "The Islamic University of Gaza absorbs students from the other organs of Hamas and uses it as an indoctrination institution and forum for Hamas."
Halevi cited examples of a Hamas children's magazine Al-Fateh, which recently celebrated Islamic University as "the university of suicide attackers." The school has also held rallies at which students have sworn allegiance to "continue the jihad" against Israel.
Whatever its ties to Hamas, the university has not been cut off from Western development assistance.
Intel Corp. is donating about $1 million for the university to open a Technology Center of Excellence, in the former Jewish settlement of Netzarim. The United States Agency for International Development, which is forbidden from assisting organizations with ties to terrorism, has provided support for training and voter education; in October it donated five computers and study materials to the campus. USAID officials said the university was "fully vetted" and signed an Anti-Terrorism Certificate before it received any assistance.
Halevi says donors are being deceived.
"When you support this university, you are at the end of the day supporting Hamas," he said.
On a recent morning, the school was busy with education. Men and women, in their respective ends of campus, rushed to classes, chatted on cell phones and rested in the shade of palm trees. A group of students warmed up on the fields for soccer practice.
At the university's continuing education center, all male students in one classroom and all female students in another were learning basic computer skills.
In another room, women were developing educational cartoons for Palestinian television. One student sat hunched over a table sketching out a peach. Others proudly discussed a new film they completed called Deer Dreams, which they hope to sell to Arab television networks.
In the library, it was women's hours, and students sat studying at long tables. In the English-language section, there was clearly no ban on Israeli texts. Their collection included Warrior, the autobiography of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and a book on Jewish history.
University staff and administrators - many of them educated in American universities - were eager to prove that their institution is legitimate.
"Basically our curricular is based on the American system," says Dr. Hatem A. Elaydi, head of the resources development center at the university. "The student life here is normal like any American university."
A quick glance at the student body and the lists of regulations raise doubts of about his claim. Kevin Lewis, a professor of religious studies at University of South Carolina, who was a Fulbright lecturer at the university in 1998, has fond memories of his semester teaching there. But, he adds, he was struck by the tightly regulated student life.
"A Puritan form of Islam was controlling the university," he says. "Every student was required to memorize the Koran. It was so rigid. It seem liked a secondary school."
University officials say those regulations reflect the wishes of the Palestinian population."We live in a community that is conservative," says Husam Ayesh, spokesman for the university. "There are 10,000 women on campus. If we would have this be a co-ed campus, we would have only 5,000. Some parents wouldn't send their daughters here."
On the women's side of campus, Professor Habeeb was preparing to start his lecture on early American literature.
A graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Habeeb, 50, lived in the United States for several years before returning to Gaza a decade ago to teach.
Habeeb describes himself as a political independent but openly supports Hamas and its ability to lead Palestinians out of decades of corruption into a new beginning.
Standing behind a desk at the front of the class, Habeeb lectured without notes, hopscotching from the writings of Capt. John Smith to literary deconstruction to Bob Dylan.
Never far from his mind or the students was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in part, because it seemed impossible to ignore.
Recently, Palestinians fighters had launched rockets into Israel. One rocket hit an Israeli family's mobile home, injuring three people, including a 7-month-old infant. Israel responded by targeting alleged members of militant groups, and Israeli tanks shelled areas used by militants to launch the rockets.
A new round of shelling began soon after Habeeb's class got under way. With each round, there was an earth-shattering THUMP! The shock rattled the classroom windows.
The class continued, and the discussion turned to the first American colonists. Habeeb commented that the early settlers wrote about the Native Americans as barbaric and uncivilized. Still, many wrote glowingly of their new life and the riches of the land, encouraging other Europeans to follow them.
"Does it remind you of anybody?" he asked.
"The Jews" one woman answered.
"Yes, when they talk about the land of milk and honey."
Before class was over, he reminded his students that instead of The Scarlet Letter they would be reading Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, a novel illustrating the American dream of rebirth and renewal, he said - a dream that he clearly believed Palestinians should share.
These thoughts appeared to stay with Habeeb when he left the classroom and stepped into the university courtyard. The sun was shining. The shelling was over. It was quiet again.
Habeeb took in the scene before him. For Gaza, it was a moment rare enough to cherish.
"If Hamas works very hard, this is an example of how things will be," he said.