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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 Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 21, 2008

New look: Palestinian security force members trained earlier this month in Hebron.

Debbie Hill/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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Hebron, West Bank

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.

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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.

"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."