Policing the Policemen

Forget the talk of unity. Gaza will be a mess until someone can control the underpaid and overarmed gunmen that wander the streets.

Mourners bury a fighter with aligned with Fatah's armed wing. Click image to expand.
Mourners at the funeral of a Fatah member

GAZA CITY—The next time the leaders of rival political factions here in the Palestinian territories come to a podium with smiles and handshakes—as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh recently did to announce a unity government they pray will end factional fighting between their Fatah and Hamas parties—remember Majed Ghrayeb, a top Fatah security official.

One evening, a little over a month ago, Ghrayeb was at home when the interior ministry’s Executive Force—the Hamas addition to the more than a dozen militias, mafias, and gangs that ply their trade in the Gaza Strip—attacked his house in the Jabaliya refugee camp. In the ensuing gun battle, Ghrayeb was wounded and taken from his home by the Hamas gunmen.

Within minutes of the attack, Abbas, whom everyone calls Abu Mazen, called Haniyeh in an effort to get Ghrayeb released. Haniyeh reached the commanders on the ground, ordered them to release Ghrayeb, and was promised that he would be let go “in five minutes,” according to an official in the room at the time.

About five minutes later, the Hamas fighters executed Ghrayeb and dumped his body in the street.

Despite Abbas’ and Haniyeh’s recent moves toward cooperation, the two men have failed to address what might be the only issue that currently matters: who will command the thousands of underpaid and overarmed gunmen who wander the streets of the Gaza Strip “keeping order.”

It’s great news that Hamas is now willing to share ministry portfolios with Abu Mazen’s Fatah party. Great news, that is, if you or a family member are chosen for a cabinet position. But for the rest of the Gaza Strip’s poor and frustrated residents, all that matters is the lack of money, the number of guns in the hands of young men, and how it seems that Haniyeh and Abu Mazen have little, if any, say in the behavior of their own security forces.

The tax revenues collected by Israel and the huge amounts of international aid given to the Palestinian government are the only things that keeps Gaza eating. And because of Hamas’ refusal to recognize the state of Israel, most of that revenue has dried up since the party’s January 2006 election victory. At the same time, since Israel evacuated its Gaza settlements in the summer of 2005 and Israel turned over the Egyptian border to Palestinian authority in November of that year, local black-market trade in guns, rocket launchers, and drugs has boomed.

It’s easy for Americans and Israelis to say—as they recently have—that the Palestinians need to unify their security forces and support a government that recognizes Israel’s right to exist. But doing so would require a series of impossibilities. First, the Palestinian Authority would need to find an interior minister who could integrate a slew of different factions that hate each other and whom the fighters on the street would respect. However, any potential minister who was himself untainted by factional bloodletting would also lack the gunmen needed to bring the others in line. Hamas will never accept the command of Fatah security boss Mohammed Dahlan, and Dahlan’s men are loyal to him only as long as he pays their salaries. And if Haniyeh can’t even keep his men from killing senior Fatah officials against direct orders, it seems unlikely that he can force his more militant allies to accept the terms that would reopen the aid spigot the government desperately needs.

In the Khan Yunis refugee camp, a Hamas stronghold, the Executive Force is housed and trained, not without irony, in a former Israeli settlement. In new blue camouflage uniforms, Hamas militants go through the motions of training to be real police officers. For the most part, they’re sweet kids, quick to laugh and joke with an American visitor, and a few even speak fondly of the days before the intifada when Israeli settlers would come to Khan Yunis to shop and hang out. To a man they insist that while they are Hamas party members, they want to be part of a police force that protects all Palestinians, regardless of affiliation.

But when pressed, one of their top officials—a huge, gregarious man named Abu Mutana—admits that even with the new deal, the chances of preventing more intra-Palestinian bloodshed are slim. On his giant hands, he checks off the problems: hate for Dahlan by his own men, family feuds and revenge killings that continue unabated despite the pleas of the leaders. Finally, he admits that unity is a charade, as would become clear if he were ordered to arrest Ghrayeb’s killers. “If you ask me once, I am the interior ministry police. You ask me again, I am Palestine’s police force.” He pauses and grins. “You ask me a third time, my friend, and I am Hamas; only Hamas.”

Students and faculty returning to the campus of Gaza's Islamic University. Click image to expand.
Students and faculty return to Gaza’s Islamic University

An hour later, back in Gaza City, more than 3,000 armed young men aligned with Fatah were marching and shooting guns in the air. My driver and I assumed the war had resumed, for who would send thousands of armed men to fire wildly in the air in front of the Islamic University of Gaza, a hotbed of Hamas support that was recently burned and looted by Fatah gunmen.

But it seems they just want jobs. After what they claimed was eight months of training—although their ability to march and handle automatic weapons makes me suspect they need another eight months—they have no jobs, only uniforms and weapons.

As they shouted and fought over whose turn it was to shoot the machine gun in the air, a local journalist leaned over and whispered in my ear. “This is about money,” he said. “Fuck Fatah, and fuck Palestine. If [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert called right now and offered them each [$250] a month, they’d all become Jews and join the Israeli Defense Forces.”