Palestinian fear police state is in the making

A JEEP screeched to a halt outside Anis Saker's house at midnight, and six plainclothes policemen hustled away two of his adult sons.

That was May 28, days after Palestinian security forces took control of the Gaza Strip. Mr. Saker has not seen his sons since.

He believes they are being held on suspicion of informing for Israel, but no one will tell him the actual charges. ``There is no authority, no legal system, no court to go to,'' he says.

When the Palestinian police arrived in the Gaza Strip under the self-rule agreement with Israel, they were given a more enthusiastic welcome than Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat received in July. For Gazans, the police heralded the departure of Israel's occupying Army.

Now, with the autonomy administration in disarray, the police are the most active form of government in Gaza, and their behavior has become a gauge of Mr. Arafat's commitment to democracy.

Some Palestinians fear a police state in the making.

``What disturbs us most are torture and not allowing families to visit prisoners, the lack of freedom of speech, the armed people in the streets, and the large number of informants,'' says human rights activist Ibrahim Shehadeh.

Police acknowledge transitional problems, but insist they are qualified despite their relative lack of training in civilian policing after years of military life.

Attorney General Khaled Al-Qudra, appointed by Arafat, denied cases of torture and visitation restrictions. He would not say how many people had been arrested. ``We are in a transitional period, so it is natural that there are violations of law here and there'' among the police, ``but we have no knowledge of them,'' Mr. Al-Qudra says.

One problem in the autonomous areas is that no one is sure what laws apply. Results have yet to be seen from a committee appointed to write new laws.

The number of security agencies in the Gaza Strip, which have a total staff of about 8,000 in a population of 800,000, adds to the confusion.

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