Palestinian security gets a feminine touch

By adding females to the police force, Palestinian officials hope to improve the image of their security forces.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    New look: Palestinian security force members trained earlier this month in Hebron.
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    Ready to serve: Khitam Farraj of the Palestinian Security Forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas stands ready at a training drill in Hebron.
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Palestinian police surround the house of suspected militants and knock, demanding to be let in. Normally, they'd kick in the door if it didn't open immediately, but today they have the thing that every home is said to need: a woman's touch.

As part of a new Palestinian Authority (PA) security initiative, this unit, like every Hebron unit that searches houses, has two female officers to bring a gentler side to long-stigmatized house raids.

Using female police officers in the field is part of the latest PA effort to help President Mahmoud Abbas better control the West Bank and Hamas. Although there's also been an overall expansion of the police force, security officials see women as key to a new, hearts-and-minds strategy.

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"In the past, we never had women in the police [force], except maybe some working in the office," says Brig. Gen. Samaeeh el-Safy, who is the head of the new security campaign in the Hebron area.

He says that having women play a pivotal role in security is just one of many changes in approach since forces have received training in the past half-year by international experts, both in the West Bank and in Jordan.

Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a coup nearly a year and a half ago, PA officials have begun strengthening the security forces to ensure that they will not manage to achieve a similar feat in West Bank cities.

While the PA is expanding the ranks of its security forces, the biggest changes may be taking place in the mentality of the forces.

Whether they've been conducted by Israelis or Palestinians, surprise house raids have become a commonplace occurrence here, but they have been known to do more harm than good. They can damage relations between security forces and the local population, particularly in conservative Muslim countries where the sudden arrival of strange men in the home – where women aren't covered in their outdoorwear – is considered deeply shameful.

"When our forces used to enter houses in the past, before this campaign, the women would hide the weapons in their underclothes, and then they were automatically off limits," says Khitam Farraj, a female police officer with a PhD in psychology. "Before, women were part of the security apparatus, but we didn't have the capability or the training we needed, and we weren't well organized."

But now women are taking a leading role in many security operations in the West Bank. When police enter a house, the female officers immediately take the women aside, usually to a separate room, and search them in a respectful way, while the men go to work on the men.

"We talk to them gently," says Ms. Farraj, a lean, muscular woman who wears an Islamic head scarf that matches her camouflage suit of green and brown. "We address them with the same terminology you would use for your mother, your sister, or your aunt."

Or, in the words of Capt. Mohammed Il-Jabari, who runs such raids several times a week: "As soon as we walk in, the women are in charge."

By using female police officers on housing searches, "we have preserved our customs and morals," says General Safy. "Every time we arrest, we take some policewomen with us."

Yet only so much can be done to camouflage the ultimate message. This is a surprise raid, and everyone – and everywhere – in the house is about to be searched.

"The security campaign has given our troops an opportunity to practice their training.

The most important change is the way our officers are respecting human rights," says Safy. "Today, when we take our men on house searches, we see how well behaved they are."

To be sure, not everybody agrees with this rosy review of the security campaign. A random survey of people in the street suggest that while some people think the law-and-order surge is a good thing, others are skeptical and say detainees are regularly mistreated and beaten.

"They haven't been treating those they arrest in the right way," says Rana Nasser, a university student here. "You hear stories of people who come out of their arrest and they hardly look like the same human being."

But Sali Radwan, her friend, adds that the crackdown is meant to keep the West Bank in the hands of Fatah, the secular and pro-Western offshoot of the Palestinian Liberation Organization that publicly entered into a peace process with Israel in 1993. "Their most important objective is to halt any situation here that would be similar to what happened in Gaza," Ms. Radwan says.

Meanwhile, Hamas boycotted an Egyptian-sponsored "national reconciliation" conference in Cairo earlier this month, saying that the PA's large-scale security crackdown was simply a campaign against Hamas supporters in the West Bank.

At a downtown luncheonette, most of the men are dismissive of the campaign and its supposed success.

That the troops are newly trained and especially sensitive to not trampling through a man's castle – his home – are lost on them. "It's unclear to me what the security campaign is," says Mohammed Salameh, who has a grocery store.

"Does it let me go to my shop in a safer way? There are still lots of thieves and criminals around. I see that they're just after men from one faction," he says, indicating Hamas. "And I saw them behaving like the Israelis do – breaking down the doors of houses with their feet."

Safy is perturbed at such criticism and says the reports of torture are just Hamas-generated rumors aimed at weakening the security campaign. "When it come to Hamas," he acknowledges, exasperated, "I'm intolerant."

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