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For Muslims around the world, the holy month of Ramadan is coming to a close. Ramadan means, among other things, reflection and fasting, giving up food and water from dawn til dusk, and individual decision for religious Muslims. But for Palestinians living in the West Bank, the police have gotten involved.

As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: On patrol in Nablus, police officer Ashraf Hashake(ph) waves to friends in a local shop and flashes up friendly smile.

Lieutenant ASHRAF HASHAKE (Police Officer, Nablus, West Bank): (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: But make no mistake, if you violate the Ramadan fast in public on Lieutenant Hashake's beat, you're likely to get a beat down.

Lt. HASHAKE: (Through translator) This person insults Muslims and insults his fellow citizens. He will be beaten in order to be an example for others.

WESTERVELT: Asked if the back of a hand is the approved method for police to enforce God's law, Lieutenant Hashake simply nods an enthusiastic yes.

The new tough line against Ramadan violators is 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 moved aggressively to assert religious and moral authority on the streets of West Bank cities. Fatah's crackdown on Islamist charities, mosques and religious endowments.

In Ramallah, about an hour south of Nablus, the police, for the first time this Ramadan, have launched morality patrols. Officers carrying AK-47 riffles and wearing wide, bright red armbands that read, morality police, are arresting any one caught violating the religious rule against eating, smoking or drinking in public. The group's commander is Lieutenant Murad Qendah, an ambitious 27-year-old officer, who helped create the union.

Lieutenant MURAD QENDAH (Commander, Morality Police Unit): (Through translator) My main task is to preserve the spirit of Ramadan, to make sure that nobody breaches the law of Ramadan, of fasting. And second, in order to stop all rascalish behavior in the streets of Ramallah.

WESTERVELT: Lieutenant Qendah says most violators are taken into an interrogation room at the police station and get a stern talking to about morality, Islam and the social order.

Sometimes, he says, if the violator shows no remorse, they'll spend the night in jail and have to sign a statement, pledging not to violate Ramadan rules ever again.

Public morality patrols are more reminiscent of hardline, authoritarian Islamic states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia than the more secular West Bank. Ramallah, the West Bank's biggest and most cosmopolitan city, has several thriving bars and a few nightclubs and art galleries.

Lieutenant Qendah insists his unit doesn't signal a creeping Talibanization of the Palestinian police. We're not here, he insists, to tell people to wear headscarves or modest clothing.

Lt. QENDAH: (Through translator) We do not interfere in personal freedom. We are protecting the personal freedom of the citizens. Talk to the people.

WESTERVELT: Most Palestinians interviewed said they eagerly support the new decency patrols. Twenty-year-old student Sarah Jami(ph) is one of them.

Ms. SARAH JAMI (Student, Ramallah): (Through translator) Ramadan in the Koran is looked upon as better than a thousand months. Can't people respect that month? Morality police makes them respect that month.

WESTERVELT: Lieutenant Qendah, meantime, says, the police intend to continue and perhaps, expand the morality patrols after Ramadan.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Ramallah.

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