In Gaza, it's back on the beat

After four years with little authority, thousands of Palestinian officers return, armed with the power to stop attacks and make arrests.

February 06, 2005|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip - For the past four years, Palestinian police Lt. Saifaldeen al-Saidy has retained most of the tools of his trade. He kept his olive-green uniform, floppy green beret and Kalashnikov assault rifle.

What he lacked was authority to arrest anyone.

For all of that time, the Palestinian government virtually disappeared, in effect giving the gunmen of Hamas and other militant groups immunity for their actions. Militants who claimed that Israel was their target became neighborhood warlords, deciding for themselves what law and justice meant.

"Do you know how embarrassing it is?" Saidy says, remembering a three-day street battle between militant groups. "I'm a policeman, and I couldn't leave my home, much less protect my neighbors."

But a lot changed here last week. About 4,000 policemen returned to their beats, armed with radically different orders that reflect the rapidly changing outlooks of the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

"Our orders are to stop anybody from attacking the Israelis," says Saidy, who supervises officers on the street. "If I see someone about to shoot, I will prevent him. First I will talk to him. Then I will arrest him."

Many of the old givens are suddenly being discarded:

Israel says it will withdraw all its troops from Gaza and abandon the Jewish settlements here beginning in July. Israeli security officials are meeting with their Palestinian counterparts to try to ensure that the disengagement occurs peacefully.

Hamas and other militant groups, with little to show for four years of violence, say they will agree to a cease-fire if Israel meets certain conditions.

The Palestinian Authority has pressed for the cease-fire and has reasserted itself as the area's legitimate government.

Palestinian police feel empowered not so much by any order as by the election last month of Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, as president of the Palestinian Authority.

"He talked of calming the situation," says Saidy, 40, who was a militant during the 1990s and joined the security forces as a way to avoid being jailed by the police force, then new. "The Palestinian people gave us the orders to clamp down by electing Abu Mazen. We have a job to do, and that is to let the Palestinian people breathe again."

Until recent weeks, Saidy's job entailed only showing up at the Khan Younis police headquarters, a squat concrete building scarred by bullets and furnished with the barest necessities. He drank tea and coffee. He chatted with friends. His salary of about $200 a month came in cash, wrapped in old newspapers and stuffed into a paper bag.

And he usually stayed inside until the end of his shift.

He ventured out only to help carry away Palestinians wounded in clashes. He had no authority to stop the militants who ruled the streets or to respond to Israeli troops.

"It was an impossible situation and a helpless feeling," he says.

Khan Younis, in many ways, looks far different from the Khan Younis of a few months ago. Police blanket street corners and pull over cars and taxis. Police checking for weapons catch hundreds of drivers who didn't renew their licenses during the years of anarchy.

Some things are unchanged. Though they are said to be preparing to withdraw, Israeli troops continue fortifying their posts and clearing land to expand buffer zones.

And Khan Younis remains a place of crowded, ramshackle buildings, with unemployment remaining at more than 50 percent. This is still the land of Hamas, but Hamas - many of its leaders dead - has shifted tactics from violence to cautious support for Abbas' call for quiet.

"We told Israel that we are going to be professional," says Brig. Gen. Hasan al-Najar, deputy police commander in southern Gaza, "but we know we can't stop things 100 percent."

Even as a general, his power is limited, such as when he reaches the main Israeli checkpoint. He is allowed to cross in a taxi, but not in a police car.

Some Israelis are optimistic that the Palestinian Authority will quickly mature. "I think that for the first time in the Arab world, the people - in this case the Palestinians - trust their leaders," says Yohanan Tzoreff, a former adviser to the Israeli military government here. "If you asked me four months ago if the Palestinian police could arrest anybody in a Gaza neighborhood, I would tell you that they don't have the power to do it."

"Now I can tell you that the situation has changed."

Israeli Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz expressed caution when he visited troops here last week, telling them, "The Palestinian police are in the area, but they aren't doing enough. The situation is very fragile."

There is no reason for concern, Saidy says, because the police know their job.

"My job is not to protect the people of Israel, but to protect the Palestinian people," he says. "They are in the middle of this war, and they applaud our efforts to restore calm. We are taking the stand we are taking for them.

"Our people are ready for this. They got nothing from the past four years and need a change. If anyone can enforce a cease-fire, it is the people, not the police."

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