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Gaza police back on the beat amid Israeli attacks

Wearing civilian garb to avoid detection by warplanes, the officers are busy arresting merchants suspected of price gouging during the crisis.

January 01, 2009|Ashraf Khalil and Ahmed Burai | Burai is a special correspondent. Special correspondents Fayed abu Shammala in Cairo and Muhammed Jamal in Rafah contributed to this report.

JERUSALEM REPORTING GAZA CITY — Gaza City police have redeployed in force, as Hamas works to maintain law and order in the Gaza Strip amid a prolonged Israeli air assault that has leveled dozens of police stations and left nearly 400 people dead.

But many officers on patrol are now wearing civilian clothing and carrying sticks rather than guns to avoid being targeted by Israeli warplanes.

"We are trying to cope with the situation," said Officer Abu Ahmed, 47. "It's not easy to work under the current situation, but we have no other option but to keep working."

In addition to maintaining the peace among an increasingly desperate, heavily armed population, police are arresting merchants suspected of price gouging -- all while keeping a vigilant eye on the skies.

Officer Mohammed Abo Hwaishel shivered against the winter rain Wednesday. He was told not to light a fire for fear of drawing the Israelis' attention.

"We are used to this. We have to keep our people's lives safe," the 30-year-old policeman said. And besides, he added, "the streets are safer than the buildings nowadays."

Nearly half the Palestinians killed since the Israeli attacks began Saturday have been police, according to police spokesman Islam Shahwan, who said most of the 180 dead officers perished in the initial strike.

"All of our security compounds in the Gaza Strip were destroyed or seriously damaged," Shahwan said.

Hamas, the militant group that has controlled Gaza since mid-2007, has an estimated 20,000-strong security force composed of police; Protection and Security, a unit similar to the U.S. Secret Service; and Internal Security, an intelligence and interrogation squad with a rising reputation for brutality.

Many security force members moonlight with the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade, Hamas' military wing, which continues to launch dozens of rockets and mortar shells each day at southern Israeli towns.

Israel began its aerial assault after Palestinian militants in Gaza resumed the rocket and mortar attacks when a six-month cease-fire ended last month.

The casualty figures haven't made a huge dent in Hamas' security force. But the Israeli attacks have disrupted communications, gutted most security facilities and left senior command officials dead.

Now the police are back in force with a mandate to prevent looting and crack down on profiteering.

In the southern Gaza city of Rafah, a young man selling gallon jugs of kerosene was approached by three police officers, who demanded that he lower his price from 5 Israeli shekels (about $1.30) to 4. He refused, so the officer called in reinforcements and the merchant backed down, according to residents.

Elsewhere in Rafah, residents reported to a new police hotline that a flour merchant was boosting his prices above the official ceiling, a felony offense under laws passed by Hamas last year. Several plainclothes police arrived at his storefront discreetly concealing pistols. They warned the merchant that he risked confiscation of his flour if the complaints persisted, according to witness accounts.

Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 and seized control of Gaza in June 2007. One of its first actions was to crack down on armed factions and street crime, a campaign that even its critics say was extremely effective.

Shahwan, the police spokesman, said there was minimal looting and theft immediately after the Israeli assault began. The police hotline has received more than 70 citizen reports of price gouging and other crimes.

One immediate test to police authority came Monday, when a blood feud erupted between two heavily armed families in Rafah.

After two members of one clan were slain in a dispute, the victims' family set fire to several homes belonging to the clan of those blamed for the killings. Police intervened en masse, established order and brought in neighborhood elders, known as mukhtars, to conduct a reconciliation session and negotiate compensation for the victims' family.

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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Bellicose rhetoric from Iranians

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