In the Fatah-controlled West Bank, police wearing big red arm bands that read "Morality Police" are enforcing the Ramadan fast, a time of giving up food, water and sin from dawn to dusk. And while the fasting period is coming to an end; the reasons behind the stricter enforcement may linger for some time.
In the city of Ramallah, officers patrol the streets carrying AK-47 rifles, arresting anyone caught violating the religious prohibition against eating, smoking or drinking in public during daytime. The new group's leader is Lt. Murad Qundah, an ambitious 27-year-old officer who helped create the unit.
"My main task is to preserve the spirit of Ramadan, to make sure no one breeches the law of Ramadan, of fasting," Qundah said in Arabic. "And second, in order to stop all rascalish behavior in the streets of Ramallah."
The lieutenant says most violators are taken to an interrogation room at the police station, where they get a stern talking-to about morality, Islam and social order.
If the violator shows no remorse, he says, they might have to spend a night in jail and sign a statement pledging not to violate Ramadan again.
The new tough line against Ramadan violators has spread across much of the West Bank this year. After losing control of the Gaza Strip to the Islamists of Hamas in June, the more secular Fatah movement has aggressively asserted religious and moral authority on the streets of West Bank cities. Fatah has also tried to crack down on Islamist charities, mosques and religious endowments.
In the West Bank city of Nablus, about an hour north of Ramallah, police have also been enforcing the fast, sometimes with brute force.
"If this person insults Muslims and insults his fellow citizens," by violating the fast, Nablus police Lt. Ashrah Hashykeh said in Arabic, "he will be beaten in order to be an example to others."
Asked if the back of the hand is the approved method for police to enforce God's law, Lt. Hashykeh simply nods an enthusiastic "yes."
Some Palestinians worry the new Morality Police may signal police enforcement of a conservative Islamist social agenda. Such public "morality patrols" are more reminiscent of hard-line authoritarian Islamic states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia than the more secular West Bank.
Ramallah is the West Bank's most international city, home to a flourishing night life of restaurants, bars, and a few nightclubs and art galleries.
Lt. Qundah, who patrols there, insists his unit doesn't signal the "Talibanization" of the Palestinian police. "We're not asking women to wear headscarves or modest clothing," the officer said.
"We do not interfere in personal freedoms we are protecting the personal freedoms of the citizens," Qundah said, "Talk to the people!"
Most Palestinians interviewed said they support the new decency patrols. Student Sareh Jemee, in her 20s, is one of them.
"Ramadan in the Koran is looked upon as better than a thousand months," Jemee said in Arabic. "Can people respect that month? Morality police makes them respect that month."
Ramallah police say they hope to continue — perhaps even to expand — the Morality Police unit after the Ramadan holiday.
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