Morality police patrol West Bank

The Palestinian Morality Police detain a teenager for smoking in public.
The Palestinian Morality Police detain a teenager for smoking in public. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The scrawny teenage detainee squirmed uncertainly in his seat as Palestinian police interrogators peppered him with questions.

"Are you Muslim or not?" one officer asked the sullen waiter, who'd been picked up for smoking in public during the daily fast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. "When I see you eating or smoking, it is shameful."

"Tell your boss that tomorrow, the first thing we are going to do is close down his restaurant," warned the second interrogator, who was wearing a thick red armband that read "Morality Police."

The Morality Police have come to the Palestinian Authority. Only the charge isn't being led by hard-liners from the militant Islamist Hamas movement, as many once feared, it's being spearheaded by the secular Fatah party as part of its campaign to undermine growing support for Hamas in the West Bank.

Morality police squads generally are associated with authoritarian religious regimes such as those in Iran and Saudi Arabia and the deposed Taliban government in Afghanistan.

But here in the West Bank's most sophisticated city, Fatah has usurped the idea as a way to resurrect its image among an ever-more-conservative population and to ensure that Hamas doesn't gather the sort of strength and support in the West Bank that allowed it to seize control of the Gaza Strip over the summer. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his secular allies also have clamped down on Hamas charities, mosques and militants in the West Bank.

"Morality is part of the public order," said Murad Qundah, the 27-year-old police captain who heads the new 10-person unit. "We are not a religious police."

Launched two weeks ago to coincide with the beginning of Ramadan, Morality Police foot patrols already have arrested nearly two dozen Palestinians for smoking or drinking in public when they were supposed to be fasting.

Secular Palestinians feared that Hamas leaders would impose such restrictions after they took control of the Palestinian Authority in last year's elections. That never came to pass, even in the more socially conservative Gaza Strip, where alcohol is virtually nonexistent and women are more likely than not to cover their heads.

So it's something of a surprise that Fatah would be the driving force behind the Morality Police. Adding to the surprise is the decision to do so first in Ramallah, the West Bank's largest and most cosmopolitan city.

Each day, the patrols are met with a mixture of enthusiastic support, wary disinterest and nervous distance. And while there's been some grumbling, there also are some surprising expressions of support, even among young women who dress in jeans, wear makeup and don't cover their heads.

"We need this for our country so we can walk freely in the streets without guys disturbing us," said Nora, a 20-year-old Christian university student who expressed no fears that the unit would try to force her to wear modest clothes or wear a headscarf. She asked that she be identified only by her first name.

The squad agrees that it isn't trying to force women to cover their heads or forgo tight-fitting jeans. Instead, it's targeting boys who harass girls and people smoking or eating during the daily Ramadan fast.

"The name of the unit suggests that we are here to restrict their freedoms," said Qundah, an ambitious young police officer with a law degree who hopes to expand the unit's operation after Ramadan. "On the contrary, we are here to protect their freedoms."

The police officers politely tell circles of men to stop standing in the street, ask store owners to clear displays from sidewalks and ensure that vendors don't crowd the streets outside the main downtown mosque at prayer time.

Penalties are relatively lenient. Although the police tell people that they'll be jailed until the end of Ramadan for eating, drinking or smoking in public, Qundah said most people have been freed within a day or two.

Earlier this week, Qundah led his squad across town to where a second unit had corralled the confused young teenage boy accused of smoking in public. A member of the Morality Police squad firmly linked arms with the boy and quietly chastised him as they walked to the nearby police station for questioning.

In a sparse, dimly lit office, Qundah and a second unidentified officer castigated the teenager, who was freed after he agreed to sign a statement vowing not to smoke or eat during the Ramadan fast.

"If we allow everyone to break the fast, there would be no Ramadan," the second interrogator lectured the boy. "You are not fasting to satisfy the Morality Police. You are fasting to satisfy God."