RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Dressed in jeans and a cap, M. looks like any other young Palestinian man in Ramallah's trendiest new restaurant. His demeanor is unobtrusive. He carries no weapon. His disarming smile makes him easily approachable.
Only the scars on his boyish face - and the nervous smiles on the faces of the people he meets - suggest he is anything but the affable young man he appears to be.
For M. can strike fear into the hearts of Palestinians with a midnight knock on the door. He is one of several hundred Palestinians working for the Preventive Security, one of at least six security forces operating in the West Bank and Gaza since the territory was turned over to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
M. is cautious, never directly admitting exactly what he does. Because of the nature of his work, he cannot give his name. To do so would impair the ability of his secretive organization to carry out its work, he says. "I am a soldier," he states obliquely. "I follow orders."
Hardened by experience
He is typical of the young adults recruited by the Preventive Security. One of Mr. Arafat's foot soldiers during the seven-year Palestinian uprising, or intifada, he spent a total of four years in Israeli prisons for membership in Fatah, Arafat's mainstream organization, the first time at age 17.
He was released shortly before Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo peace accords in September 1993. Prison hardened him, proved his loyalty, and taught him who was who on the Palestinian streets. His reward was membership in the Preventive Security.
He is not a soldier. He wears no uniform and carries no badge. He can be spotted wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and driving a BMW down the streets of Ramallah, one of the seven West Bank towns now under Palestinian self-rule, about 12 miles north of Jerusalem. With their cell phones and tinted-windowed cars, M. and his colleagues rule the unruly streets.
But it is not easy. After almost 30 years of Israeli military occupation, the Palestinian population has little respect for authority. Several months ago, M. tried to arrest an unwilling West Bank suspect. The man slashed his face with a razor blade. M. spent two nights in the hospital and later flew to the Netherlands for surgery.
Still, he remains fiercely loyal to his work and especially to Col. Jabril Rajoub, head of the Preventive Security. "He is like a father to me," M. says.
Part of the problem lies in the reputation the security forces have gained in the short time they have been in operation. Human-rights organizations allege the Palestinian security forces use widespread torture and hold prisoners for months without trial. At least eight Palestinians have died during interrogation. In a society politicized by the intifada and acutely aware of human rights, the actions of the security forces are turning public opinion against them.
The human-rights groups further charge that the security forces work outside any legal structure that can curb their abuses. The only body monitoring them is made up of members of the security forces themselves.
With no definition or jurisdiction, the various forces end up competing for allegiance and distinction, say Palestinian observers. At least four forces, for instance, are concerned with "internal surveillance," a term vague enough to elude any control over their operations, and broad enough to include acting against any form of Palestinian political dissent.
Young men like M. play down these problems, blaming them on the infancy of the security forces and the Palestinian government itself, which has existed only two years. "I love my people," M. says. "I would do anything to make sure the peace with Israel survives because it is good for us."
Despite all the security abuses, these young ex-intifada activists now working for the Preventive Security look at their job patriotically. Says another ex-Fatah activist now working for Colonel Rajoub: "We are for peace. We are working for the country."
The irony is that instead of fighting Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, they now fight the Islamic militants among their own people who would try to scuttle the peace agreement their leaders signed with Israel.
At first, the Palestinian Authority hesitated to go after militants from the Islamic group Hamas. Only after a series of suicide bus bombings in Israel threatened the peace process did the security forces begin to crack down.
"The Hamas threatens the survival of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian dream of independence," M. explains. "Every time they blow up a bus, they kill 10 Israeli souls, yes? But they also kill 1 million Palestinian souls because they kill the Palestinian dream."
Doing the job
But he still finds himself in a tough position sometimes, a position Palestinians say is not unlike the problem faced by Arafat himself. And he admits to feeling a tinge of remorse when he is sent to arrest someone.
He recalls a time when he was in the West Bank town of Nablus. He and several other young men arrived at a house in the dead of night. An old woman appeared in the doorway.
"I thought of my own mother," M. says. "The problem is that all the time you remember when you were in his place getting arrested by Israelis. But I can't let this get to me. If I thought with my heart instead of my mind, I wouldn't survive."