Something strange is happening in Gaza.
Municipality workers are actually working.
The streets seem a bit cleaner.
And for once, I actually saw a policeman arresting a criminal in a dramatic pick-up the other day, much to the chagrin of his gang, who stoned and shot at the police car (futilely), and the “oohs” and “aahs” of onlookers (including myself).
In Gaza, we have become accustomed to the rule of law-lessness. And people are sick of it-in fact 84% according to a recent poll, place internal security as their number priority.
This is not to say that gangs and armed gunmen somehow roam the streets as in some bad Western, as the mainstream media would make it seem. But for sure, it is brawn and bullets that win the day, and decide everything from family disputes to basic criminal proceedings.
Last week, there was a “reverse honor crime” or sorts. A man was found murdered in Gaza City after being accused of molesting a young girl (reverse, I say, because usually it works the other way around). The crime was immediately decried by local human rights organizations and people alike.
But when there is no one around to enforce the law-or rather, no one ABLE to enforce the law, other than verbal condemnations, there is little else that can be done. If the accused was jailed, his family would have inevitably intervened, hiring gunmen to break him out or taking it out against another member of his family. It’s a vicious cycle. Citizens don’t feel accountable and law enforcers are impotent.
This is where Hamas’s power of moral suasion comes into play. I’ve seen it at work in areas such as Dair al-balah, which was spared the bloody clan disputes that areas of such as Khan Yunis and Beit Lahiya suffered when the Hamas-elected Municipality leader intervened.
Of course, they have no magic wand, but they seem very effective at what they do-and their networks and ability to “talk” to people as “one of the people” resonates well.
The bigger problem is what do you do when the law enforcers themselves are the ones breaking the law?
Last week 50 masked gunmen belonging to the preventive security forces blockaded off the main street between northern and southern Gaza demanding their wages, as they have been accustomed to doing over the past few years (though the mass media would have us assume otherwise, citing the incident as “the first sign” of frustration with the new government.)
They are the same old group that has always made trouble, whether for Mahmud Abbas or Ismail Haniya, and are effectively supported by Mohammad Dahalan, which he fondly refers to in his inner circles as “little army”. Hamas and others accuse them of being a “minority” stirring trouble to attempt and speed the downfall of the new government and “score political points”.
Many of them belong to the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (AMB), Fateh’s rogue offshoot.
As I’ve mentioned before, this group poses one of the biggest security challenges to Hamas. They are loyal to Fateh but seemingly answerable to no one, and a contingent of them are supported by very strong figures who want nothing else but to see this new government fail.
So what is Hamas to do? For one, form their own security force.
Yesterday, the new Minister of the Interior, Saeed Siyam, held a press conference in Gaza’s Omari Mosque in the old city (an interesting choice-the oldest mosque in Gaza, and a place for the “masses”), in which he announced the formation of a new armed “operational force” headed by Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) leader Jamal Samhadana-a brawny, bearded fellow constantly surrounded by a posse of heavily armed body guards (whom I met once), and wanted by Israel for masterminding several of the highest-profile bombings of the intifada.
The all-volunteer Force would also consist of a police arm with thousands of members of armed groups such as the AMB, PRC, and Izz-i-deen al-Qassam brigades direcly subordinate to him. As if this isn’t confusing enough, this move was meant to counter Mahmud Abbas’s recent presidential order appointing Rashid Abu Shbak, former chief of preventive security in the Strip, as head of “Internal Security” which is a new entity that unites the interior ministry’s security agencies and ensures they remain under Abbas’s rule.
Have I lost you yet?
The Israeli press was quick to condemn the move ala “wanted militant to head PA police”.
However, this is probably one of the smartest moves Hamas could make during this stage.
Why? For one, the Samhadana family is one of the most powerful clans of southern Gaza. By appointing one of their own (who also happens of course to be the leader of the PRC) as director general of the police forces in the Interior Ministry, and absorbing members of the PRC and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades-who account for two of the most volatile factions in Gaza, into the new force, Hamas is effectively ensuring their allegiance and making them “keepers of the Street” rather than “keepers of the clan”. They all pledged to fight (the word was more like “crush”) lawlessness and crime.
What about the money for wages? Well, simple. There ARE no wages. The new force is an all volunteer one, so the members are working for status and ideals rather that money (of course, at some point, there will be mouths to feed).
Of course, things could always backfire-and its not hard to see how, especially since Abbas does not recognize the new force, and factions have pledged to make a similar such force unsuccessfully in the past. But I think for the time being, it is a very interesting “think outside the box” move by Hamas, especially since it was official.
As usual, time will tell whether it will truly succeed in ensuring safety and security for Palestinian citizens or not.