Ramallah without law, order

With much of Palestinian police force gone, militia allowed to take action

April 25, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - To inventory this city's police force is a simple task. There is almost nothing left.

During its two-week occupation of the city, the Israeli army confiscated most of the police officers' weapons. Nearly all the police cars were crushed by tanks. The police chief, Salah Abu Salah, is trapped with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a compound surrounded by soldiers. The deputy chief has been detained by Israel.

It's a land of no law and no order.

"Most of the people I worked with are either in Israeli jails, wounded or dead," said a 21-year-old police officer standing under a clump of palm trees in Manara Square, Ramallah's central gathering place. "This is like anarchy. Everyone does what they want."

He was wearing green army fatigues and sporting a red beret, watching as drivers honked and clenched fists in thick traffic. He didn't want to give his name because he had hidden for days in an apartment overlooking the square and fired at Israeli soldiers, he said, and feared that they might return.

"Some guys are going to fight each other, that is expected. But it is important that we don't let things get out of control. We have to offer security, especially in this kind of a situation."

In cities across the West Bank, Palestinians are having to rebuild schools and every basic structure, from water mains to garbage trucks. And one of the hardest-hit institutions is the Palestinian police force.

Israeli troops acknowledge having deliberately targeted police officers and their buildings for aiding gunmen who carried out attacks against Israelis. Palestinians said soldiers resorted to driving around in blue police cars to arrest militants, and then crushed the vehicles.

The police have allowed militia members who escaped the Israeli offensive to begin taking matters into their own hands.

On Monday, a gang of armed men in Manara Square shot three men suspected of collaborating with Israel, killing one of them. On Tuesday, hooded militants dragged three other alleged spies out of a jail cell in Hebron and executed them on the street.

"There is no doubt that the Israeli occupation created a power vacuum and chaos on the Palestinian street," the Palestinian security chief for the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub, said this week. "There are no police forces, there are no security organizations, no stability and there are irresponsible people on the street."

Rajoub's headquarters in a Ramallah suburb was shelled by Israeli soldiers searching for militants hiding inside. And nearly every police station controlled by the Palestinian Authority was destroyed.

"No one wants to arrive at a situation in which the people take the law into their own hands," Rajoub said. "But the occupation has left us no possibility of keeping law and order."

The police force was relatively new, an innovation for a society that had long been ruled by other nations and that, to resolve disputes, relied on mediation between families.

The force authorized by the 1993 Oslo peace accords grew to encompass authorities ranging from traffic cops to military police - a small army of 30,000 to 40,000 men.

Officers were poorly trained and poorly paid, and often performed a dual role of defending cities against Israeli troops and protecting citizens from domestic crime.

`Had to get rid of him'

While the force abstained from fighting Israeli troops in an organized way, many of its members moonlighted in local militias.

Palestinian officials said they do not yet know how many police officers are in custody, dead or in hiding.

After the shooting Monday of the suspected collaborators, local police commanders called on the few officers left to return to their posts.

So there was the 21-year-old officer with his well-worn Kalishnikov rifle. His prime duty, he said, was to seek out and "deal with" suspected collaborators. The man killed Monday was blamed by the mob for helping Israeli soldiers arrest a prominent political leader.

"There are a lot of strangers around," the officer said. "There are a lot of spies in the streets. The man who was killed here was in prison, but the Israeli soldiers released him when they invaded. We had to get rid of him because he was dangerous."

Ramzi Issam, 30, a Palestinian Authority official who works in the Ministry of Local Government, overheard the remarks and quickly interrupted.

He stressed that the officer's job was to find the suspected collaborators and arrest them.

It is an important point. The Bush administration has expressed concern over vigilante justice and wants the Palestinian Authority to have a viable police force, one capable of trying suspected criminals in court instead of sanctioning street killings.

But Issam said that is virtually impossible given the damaged state of the Authority. Israeli forces destroyed most police buildings, jails and courts. The officers in Ramallah now do their paperwork in scattered apartments.

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