In Gaza, the once-jailed are becoming the jailers

November 08, 1994|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

JABALYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- The pounding on the door roused Maher Timraz's family with an all-too-familiar dread. Once again, the police cars had pulled up in the darkened alleys, forming a dragnet outside Mr. Timraz's cinder block home.

Mr. Timraz had been in and out of prison during the Israeli occupation because of his involvement with the Islamic militant group Hamas. But this time, nearly three weeks ago, it was the officers of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority who had come to haul him off to the Gaza Central Prison.

One of Mr. Timraz's jailers was Abed Ahmed, a member of the Palestinian Authority's secret police. Mr. Ahmed had been in and out of the same prison himself during the Israeli occupation because of his activities with Mr. Arafat's armed Fatah Hawks. "I wasn't expecting that one day, after being a prisoner, I'd be the prison keeper," he said.

Mr. Timraz and Mr. Ahmed exemplify a deepening rift in the society of the Gaza Strip, especially in recent weeks as the Palestinian Authority has come under mounting pressure from the Israeli and U.S. governments to crack down on Hamas. But the story of these two men, who have so much in common, also indicates just how unlikely an all-out confrontation would be.

The Palestinian police came for Mr. Timraz two days after Hamas militants abducted Israeli soldier Nachshon Waxman, who later died -- along with three of his kidnappers and another Israeli soldier -- during an unsuccessful rescue attempt. As part of a Gazawide sweep that netted about 300 Hamas activists, the police arrested Mr. Timraz, 30, then returned an hour later for his father.

Both knew prison well. Abdel Rahman Timraz was jailed for 10 years by the Israelis; Maher Timraz was imprisoned three times, for a total of three years, and deported in 1991 to a hillside in southern Lebanon with other members of Hamas.

"During the Israeli occupation, we weren't surprised when the Israelis came to arrest us. They were the enemy," said the younger Mr. Timraz, a handsome man with a jet black beard who supports his wife and three children by selling cooking gas.

But, he said, "during the Palestinian Authority, we never believed these people would come some day to arrest us. These people are our neighbors, brothers and friends."

Mr. Timraz remained in Gaza Central Prison for nine days, deprived of soap and toothpaste. The food, he said, was even worse than under the Israelis. So was the uncertainty: There was no charge, no trial, no sentence.

"I spent nine days that felt like nine years," he said. "We were waiting every moment for Arafat to call and release us. We didn't know how long we would have to stay."

But there were familiar faces. The secret-police officer assigned to investigate Mr. Timraz had, years earlier, shared a tent with him in an outdoor prison run by the Israeli military. The officer, Mr. Timraz said, was so ashamed that he asked to be taken off the case.

The wave of arrests, though praised by Israeli officials, was not popular with Gazans already losing faith in Mr. Arafat's leadership because they had seen so few economic benefits.

Halfway through his detention, Mr. Timraz heard the angry chants of 3,000 student demonstrators from Islamic University, demanding the release of the Hamas prisoners and denouncing Mr. Arafat's authority. Two days later, another protest was staged at the prison.

It was clear that the arrests were posing perhaps the strongest challenge yet to Mr. Arafat's standing on the streets of Gaza.

"The Palestinian Authority is in a Catch-22," said Ziad Abu-Amr, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "If it cracks down on Hamas, the authority will take away its own credibility. If it doesn't respect the wishes of the Israelis and the international community, they will be in an equal crisis."

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