Fatah uses 'morality police' to burnish image

The secular Palestinian party borrows example of Islamist Hamas during Ramadan to compete with its Gaza rival.

With a red armband identifying himself as "morality police," Lt. Ameen Theeti describes his job of the past few weeks as combing the streets of central Ramallah to maintain both "public order" and "tradition."

The new Palestinian Authority (PA) outfit's mission has been to bust anyone caught violating the fast during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month ending this week. That means potential arrests and jail time for simply chewing gum.

Although the enforcement of Ramadan customs is common in the Arab world, this is the first time the PA has instructed police to look for offenders. It's a move seen here as an effort by Fatah to compete with Hamas – seen by many Palestinians as the more pious and less corrupt Palestinian faction – for the hearts and minds of West Bankers.

"If we catch anyone eating or smoking in a public area, we take their identification and we bring them to an interrogation center," says Lieutenant Theeti.

Police say offenders can be held for the remainder of Ramadan, but are usually released after a few hours. Christians, says Theeti, get off with a warning. The morality outfit arrested one or two people a week during the holy month.

This effort "shows that Hamas still carries a lot of moral weight," says Hillel Frisch, a Bar Ilan University political science professor and expert on Palestinian politics. "It's true that its image was tarnished, but in the past two to three years, Hamas was the forces of decency, and Fatah was the forces of violence, dissension, and of internecine conflict."

Fatah has also received help getting a leg up on Hamas from Israel, which released dozens of Palestinian prisoners last week. The second prisoner release since Hamas's Gaza takeover was timed as a humanitarian gesture for Ramadan.

The morality police squad, which numbers only about 10, seems to be more for show than indicative of a broad crackdown on nonbelievers.

Although the Ramadan fast has always been implicitly enforced through social pressures and even though Ramallah is among the most secular of Palestinian cities, locals here generally welcomed the establishment of the morality unit, even if they themselves don't fast.

"I think their presence is quite good. This is the first time we've seen them stopping such people," says Mazen Abu Walid, a water-filter salesman. "Hamas's achievements in Gaza are of a very high caliber. People look up to such behavior. They want to emulate Hamas."

No such morality squad exists in Gaza. Local observers say that in a territory known as more traditional than the West Bank, Hamas has been careful not to give its critics a justification for allegations that it is a Taliban wannabe.

Ahmed Barghouti, an employee of the PA social welfare ministry, says that even though he isn't offended by Ramadan fast-breakers, the morality police are needed to bring the insensitive into line with societal mores. He adds that the new police force is an example of how the PA is trying to "reform itself."

Some of those reforms seem like an effort to target Hamas, rather than copy the Islamists. In the past two months, the PA has replaced Hamas-linked mosque preachers with trainees tied to Fatah and closed down Islamic charities.

"The mosques were abused. They were used for people carrying the slogans for one group – for factional agendas," says Hassan Hilali, the PA official charged with the overhaul of the Nablus Waqf, or local branch of the PA's religious authority. "We would like to raise a generation that is religious and rational. It should be a generation that is flexible and deal with life in a democratic fashion."

Still, Arab media reports claim Hamas and Fatah are in secret talks on an agreement that would reconcile the two parties after Hamas's takeover of Gaza in June. For now, however, the rift continues. Hamas officials ridiculed the morality police as an excuse to bolster the numbers of PA security forces, which have gone after Islamist militants in the West Bank.

"They are trying to justify their presence in the street," says Sheikh Yazeeb Khader, a member of Hamas. "We don't need another security apparatus."

Christian Palestinians say they worry that freedom of religion will get trampled in the fray of the Hamas-Fatah rivalry. "It's ridiculous," says Hanan Ashrawi, a Christian member of the Palestinian parliament. "We talk about respecting individual rights. Islam says there is no coercion in religion. Police shouldn't enforce any observances. It should be up to the individual."

Indeed, back in the streets of Ramallah, the police official Theeti admitted there is no law under which people can be detained for violating Ramadan in public, but insisted that enforcement of the holy month doesn't require a formal legal backing.

Fatah politicians have insisted that the morality police will be disbanded after Ramadan. But Theeti suggested that his commission may be extended beyond Ramadan. "We are Muslims, but for many years we didn't adhere to Islamic laws," he says. "Now is the time to get back to that."

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