RAMALLAH, West Bank—Hamdi Khawaja knew something was wrong as soon as he pulled up in front of his home. The front door was ajar. Khawaja cautiously entered with his nervous wife and four young children.
Inside, thieves had gone through everything. Cell phone: Gone. Jewelry: Gone. Laptop: Gone. Their sense of security: Gone.
"I never felt that someone would raid my house," Khawaja said the next day as he sat in his living room. "I never thought I would come home and find it like it was."
Palestinians used to clashes with Israeli soldiers and volatile internal political feuds are now facing a new threat: common criminals.
Robberies, fights and murders are reaching new heights, the latest manifestation of an economic crisis sparked by an economic boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian government by the United States, Europe and Israel.
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza report an overwhelming sense of despair. A recent poll found more than three-quarters of Palestinians are frustrated and demoralized. A top United Nations refugee official recently warned that conditions for Palestinians are worse now than at any time in the last six years.
And there are ominous signs that things could get much worse.
The simmering rivalry between the two largest Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, last week broke into open fighting that left at least 10 people dead when Hamas security forces attacked a protest organized by government workers who've been paid only rarely in the past seven months. Most of the workers are aligned with Fatah, the moderate party loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh from Hamas have both appealed for calm in an effort to prevent the tensions from escalating.
The crime surge is another sign of trouble. July saw a doubling in the number of thefts and fights across the West Bank. Attempted suicides also doubled, as did homicides not connected to politics, which more than tripled, from an average of fewer than five a month to 16.
Police in Gaza declined to provide comparable statistics, but crime there has been one of the area's most intractable problems since Israel pulled out its soldiers and settlers last summer.
One recent Gaza crime victim was an Abbas adviser, Nabil Shaath, whose car was taken and driver roughed up.
After the July spike, crime in the West Bank dropped to more normal levels, according to the most recent police statistics from August. But a sense of gloom still pervades police headquarters in Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority.
Like other government workers, most police officers have received no more than two months' salary since February. While the police are barred from joining in a strike by government workers, which has paralyzed other services, many—perhaps 60 percent, by one estimate—have stopped coming to work.
"There is no law now," said Col. Jabel Asfour, director of the police criminal investigation division. "And the coming year will probably be worse."
The most dramatic jump in crime comes from the theft of objects that can be resold—from car radios and laptop computers to sewer covers, which can be sold as scrap metal.
"I don't recall a time when crime has been so bad," said Ramallah police spokesman Adnan Damiri.
Officials blame the rising crime on the cutoff in Palestinian Authority funding. When Israel and the international community first stopped payments to the authority in March, Palestinians tapped their savings to pay the bills. Then they sold off family jewelry and other cherished items to get by. Now, more and more Palestinians are stealing from their friends and neighbors to make ends meet.
Yahya Barakat, director of the government-run Palestinian Broadcasting Corp., recently returned from a 12-day trip to find that someone had broken into his home and stolen a radio and a 20-year-old bottle of Italian wine.
"I laughed," Barakat said, "because I understand the situation of the people now. When I saw that they didn't take the television or the computer I was surprised. The people are very poor. They can't find money to buy bread or milk for their children."
Still, Barakat said he's worried that the problem could get worse as criminals become bolder and police officers scarcer.
"Before they were afraid of the hand of the government," Barakat said. "Now they're not afraid. Without a salary, who knows? Maybe in two or three months, maybe they will kill someone to steal from them."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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