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Hamas Moves to Restore Order in Gaza


We go now to the Gaza Strip where there are no functioning courts and most members of the Fatah-backed police force refuse to return to work.

But Hamas, which took control of the territory two weeks ago, has moved quickly to try to restore order. The militant Islamist group is cracking down on thieves, drug dealers, even celebratory gunfire. Hamas is also confronting powerful Gaza clans that Fatah was unable or unwilling to control.

From Gaza City, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: A beat up old floor fan tries to cut through the stifling 100 degree Gaza heat in this crowded office but sweat still pours down Major Motad Abu Hallad's(ph) face. For the last two weeks, the major has led an elite anti-narcotics and anti-crime unit in the police force now controlled and staffed by Hamas.

Wearing a black Palestinian Authority beret and a close-cropped beard, Major Abu Hallad shows off bundles of drugs confiscated in recent raids of local dealers.

Major MOTAD ABU HALLAD (Police Officer, Palestinian Authority): This is cocaine. It's 25-gram cocaine. And this is - they call it arus(ph). This is the top of (unintelligible) or marijuana.

WESTERVELT: The Hamas militants who took control of Gaza by force are now Major Abu Hallad's supervisors. The police major says he is just a career cop, thrilled he finally has the authority from his bosses to do what the corrupt Western-backed Fatah police force failed to do: get tough with powerful Gaza clans and actually enforce the law.

While the major is touting his drug bust, a Kalashnikov-toting aide hands him a cell phone. The relative of an alleged criminal they have arrested is threatening to attack the police station. The incensed officer barks back at the relative of the accused.

Maj. HALLAD: (Through translator) We know that's a threat. Any criminal who threatens the police, we'll step on his neck. You understand that? Law will be implemented from now on. The old time with gangs and family threats is gone.

WESTERVELT: Major Abu Hallad then throws the cell phone across his desk in disgust and orders his men to go after the family.

(Soundbite of knocking)

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible).

Maj. HALLAD: Now, we're going to catch the one who's threatening us. They're going to arrest him.

WESTERVELT: More than a dozen Hamas policemen then quickly load into a van, two pick up trucks and a police car.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Sitting in the open side door of a police van, 30-year-old Hashim Helo(ph), a member of Hamas' Executive Force, chambers a round in his Kalashnikov and says he's eager for a fight with drug dealers.

(Soundbite of gun cocking)

Mr. HASHIM HELO (Hamas Executive Force): (Through translator) Those dirty people should be banished. They're filthy drug dealers. Corrupt (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of police siren)

WESTERVELT: The police convoy then races through Gaza's crowded streets, dodging pedestrians and weaving in and out of traffic.

(Soundbite of traffic)

WESTERVELT: Hamas anti-drug police force careen through the streets at top speeds, about 15 Hamas gunmen chasing down an alleged drug dealer and his relatives.

(Soundbite of police siren)

WESTERVELT: Providing police backup for members of Hamas' militant paramilitary wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. This small army of police and gunmen surrounds a house down an alleyway in the Shijaia neighborhood of eastern Gaza city.

Curious children follow the gunmen down the alleyway and neighbors cautiously peer out of doorways. But not everyone is impressed. Mohammed(ph), who didn't want his last name used, is a neighbor of the accused. Speaking softly and out of earshot of the heavily armed Hamas police, he calls the raid heavy-handed and excessive.

MOHAMMED: (Through translator) This is not a civilized, proper procedure. They're like a gang the way the policemen are going. These are not the people who will build up a civilized country.

WESTERVELT: But not a shot is fired. The father of the alleged criminal pledges to bring his son into the police station within the hour, which he does. His 20-year-old son is investigated not for drug dealing, but for making threats and buying stolen machinery. Major Abu Hallad says the police reaction to this routine crime case underscores the force's new zero-tolerance for even minor offenses.

Hamas has even cracked down hard on the once ubiquitous celebratory gunfire at Gaza weddings. More important, the major says, the old Fatah police way of allowing clan and family clout to get people around the law is over.

Maj. HALLAD: In the past, we couldn't do anything like this because the situation was under control from the families, not under control of the government. So the police officers, they cannot be scared, they cannot be (unintelligible), okay. You'll just (unintelligible) right here, don't do it again. No, no way. Now I'm going to bring who is guilty to the jail and that's it.

WESTERVELT: But Hamas continues to have serious trouble controlling one powerful Gaza clan, the Dagmoush family. An extremist group with links to the Dagmoush clan, an al-Qaida-inspired group calling itself the Islamic Army, is behind the kidnapping of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston. The British journalist has now been held captive in Gaza for nearly four months. Monday, after a fierce gun battle, Hamas arrested the Islamic Army spokesman. The Dagmoush clan responded by kidnapping 10 Hamas-affiliated students.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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