- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A new Palestinian police unit is patrolling the streets of Ramallah to ensure Palestinians don’t violate the Ramadan daily fast, an apparent bid by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority to compete with Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip.

Wearing red armbands reading “shurtat el-adab,” Arabic for “ethics police,” the officers stroll through Ramallah’s traffic-choked downtown looking for anyone smoking, drinking, eating or chewing gum. Though some get off with a warning, others have been thrown in jail.

“If we catch anyone eating or smoking in a public area, we take their identification, and we take them to an interrogation center,” said Lt. Ameen Teeti, as he patrolled the street outside of Ramallah’s Jamal Abdel Nasser mosque, named after the former Egyptian leader.

“We are Muslims, but for many years we didn’t adhere to Islamic laws. Now is the time to get back to that.”

The officer said that the unit also goes after men who flirt in public and cars that park illegally in front of mosques.

But with just eight officers, they’ve made only a few dozen arrests in their first 2½ weeks on the job. Rather than weed out Palestinians eating in back-alley restaurants, Lt. Teeti said their mandate only covers public displays of breaking Ramadan rules.

The unit’s main purpose seems to be in its symbolism as a response to Hamas, which for decades has held a monopoly on public Islamic observance in the Palestinian territories. Indeed, the officers acknowledge there is no law on record making eating in public illegal during Ramadan.

“Preserving Ramadan doesn’t require a law,” Lt. Teeti said.

While confirming the new deployment, a former Fatah parliament member tried to play down its significance by insisting police enforcement of the Ramadan fast exists throughout the Arab world, including states where the regime is secular.

“It was unnecessary, because people observe Ramadan on their own,” said Qadoura Fares. “I don’t fast, and I smoke, but I don”t do any of that when I’m inside my car on Ramadan.”

After gaining control over Gaza, Hamas-affiliated policemen reportedly have appeared on beaches encouraging separate bathing for women and men.

Even though Fatah is a secular party, the Palestinian public is a traditional one, and the move has been met enthusiastically in the streets.

“I think their presence is quite good. This is the first time we’ve seen them stopping such people,” said Mazen Abu Walid, a 28-year-old water-filter salesman. “Hamas’ activities in Gaza are very highly regarded,” he said. “People look up to that behavior. They want to be like Hamas.”

Ahmed Barghouti, an employee of the Palestinian Authority in the Social Welfare Ministry, said that even though he wasn’t personally offended by Ramadan fast breakers, he understands the need for the new police force. He said the new enforcement is an example of how the Palestinian Authority is trying to “reform itself.”

The fast has stirred concern among Palestinian Christians in Ramallah. Police said they are just as likely to stop Christian Palestinians as Muslims, though the former are much more likely to get a warning.

“If its true, that’s ridiculous,” Hanan Ashrawi, a former parliament member, said. “We talk about respecting individual rights. Islam says there is no coercion in religion. Police shouldn’t enforce any observance. It should be up to the individuals in private.”

“We were very worried during the Hamas government, and now we see this government moving in the same direction,” said Nadine Haniyeh, a young student at the local YWCA. “They want to compete with Hamas to show they are just as moral.”

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