Justice in Gaza can be harsh, swift PLO is pressing former fighters into police force


GAZA, Israeli-Occupied Gaza Strip -- To put some order in the lawless traffic, a Palestinian militiaman began enforcing parking rules in the Khan Yunis refugee camp this week.

When one driver objected, the militiaman shot out the tires of the car. When the driver objected again, he shot the man in the legs.

"We are against shooting people" to enforce parking laws, dryly concluded Tawfiq Abu Khusa, one of the Palestine Liberation Organization officials in charge of forming a police force from those militiamen.

But that is not a blanket rule. When thieves recently robbed a jeweler in the Rafah refugee camp, the "Fatah Hawks" militiamen who caught the bandits did them a favor by publicly shooting three of them in the legs, he said.

"The people in Rafah wanted to kill the thieves," explained Mr. Khusa. "The Hawks just shot them."

This rough justice may be the norm as Palestinians attempt to set up civilian authority in Jericho and the Gaza Strip after years in which there was none.

The PLO is pressing former guerrilla fighters and underground gang members into a hastily assembled police force. They have Army-like uniforms and -- officially or not -- many will have guns. Only some will have training or experience in civilian policing.

They will be dealing with other Palestinians with guns, many of whom have been fighting authorities for years. Some of those reject the new police officers on political grounds. Others are likely to rebel at taking orders from anyone.

"You have 17-year-olds walking around here who have a gun, and that makes them important. They aren't likely to give up that gun no matter who tells them," said Ali, a 32-year-old businessman.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been without an indigenous police force for nearly six years, when the Arab police officers employed by Israel quit soon after the start of the Palestinian "intifada," or uprising.

Before that, the Palestinian police officers patrolled. But their authority was severely compromised by their association with Israel, which had occupied the area since 1967 and ruled with military orders.

Partly because many of the older men were imprisoned, the intifada boosted the prestige and power of teen-age Palestinians who fought the Israelis first with rocks, and later with guns.

In some cases, those youths also became local vigilantes. They enforced their rules against collaboration with Israel, settled personal disputes and punished suspected prostitutes or drug dealers. Their punishments were harsh: More than 765 Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians during the intifada. (About 1,070 were killed by Israeli security forces.)

"We need justice. The people felt it when we couldn't stop the collaborator killings," said Freih Abu Middain, a lawyer and PLO delegate. "Three or four women were killed last week because they were suspected of being prostitutes. There is no authority."

The agreement between Israel and the PLO authorized establishment of a strong Palestinian police force. But it was silent on other vital components of a justice system: what laws to use, what courts to apply them, what body to change the laws. All these have been usurped by Israel's military rule.

"We need a civil society after 26 years of occupation. We don't need a militia," said Mr. Khusa.

The Palestinians have recruited thousands for the police force and sent several hundred of them to Egypt and Jordan to begin training.

But after the assassination of three PLO members in Gaza, Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction announced it would not wait for Israeli withdrawal and would install a police force and secret police immediately.

The appearance of uniformed Palestinian officers in Gaza was delayed yesterday, reportedly after Israeli objections. Israel does not begin its formal withdrawal until Dec. 13. The Israeli public blanched when it got a first glimpse of the new Palestinian police uniforms -- camouflaged fatigues that resemble army uniforms.

"Like a special forces uniform," said a smiling Nader Salha, 35, whose clothing factory on a dirt street of Gaza was busy churning out the uniforms yesterday.

"They will not be only police," explained Mr. Khusa. "Their work will be security."

Most Palestinians say crime in the Gaza Strip was minimal during the intifada, despite the lack of civil police. There are no reliable statistics.

"Basically, most of the people have nothing to steal," observed Raji Sourani, a lawyer. And the presence of Israeli soldiers and vigilante Palestinian groups discouraged criminals, he said. "If you were caught, it wasn't six months imprisonment. You could get very seriously punished. If they called you a collaborator, you could get killed," he said.

But Mr. Sourani, head of the Gaza Center for Rights and Law, is wary of the plans for a Palestinian police force. "Definitely there is a need for public order. But to do it, you have to provide proper education and training," he said.

Mr. Sourani's center has focused mostly on Israeli denial of Palestinian rights. But he said the office will keep working under Palestinian autonomy.

"There will a Palestinian authority. We have no choice but to look at it, and try to intervene, and advise, and criticize if necessary," he said.

The new Palestinian police are likely to be greeted in the Gaza Strip with both welcome and suspicion. "We need police, but not if the Israelis interfere with them," said a clothing salesman who gave his name as Yassin, 28. "We don't want them working for Israelis."

"We have the right to be suspicious of them," said Mandu Barakat, 32, a television technician. "We don't know whether the police will really serve the people. We got along for more than five years without them."

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