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(photo credit: Matthew Gutman)
Crashing through rows of baby palm trees, 22-year-old Muhammad Abu Mujahid leads his band of guerrillas in a training exercise designed to mimic a hostage situation involving rogue Palestinian gangs.
Until last month, Abu Mujahid's men, training at the farm of a supporter in the Gaza Strip, were themselves part of a rogue gang. The men, who come from the Popular Resistance Committee, a militant group now affiliated with Hamas, have been involved in firing rockets at Israel, sniping at Israeli army jeeps and even kidnapping Palestinian officials. Some of them still are.
But now the group, along with militants from Hamas, is forming the backbone of a new Palestinian police force of 3,000 men - a force the Hamas-run government says will bring law and order to Gaza's streets.
With Hamas and Fatah gunmen blasting away at each other with increasing zeal, the formation of the unit represents one of Hamas's biggest gambles since the January elections lifted it to power.
Hamas hopes the unit will dampen the anarchy that has inflamed this ribbon of land, home to about 1.3 million Palestinians. But it could just as easily ignite it.
Fatah has repeatedly tried to thwart the unit's establishment since Hamas announced its formation last month. Last Wednesday, as Abu Mujahid's men lunged toward imaginary criminals in the palm orchard - poking AK-47 muzzles into suspicious "enemy" vegetation - Fatah showcased a counterforce of militants to defend its own members from the group.
"We have to act now to prevent total chaos. The Police Support Unit will be our most important tool," says Khaled Abu Hilal, spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, which controls the 65,000-strong Palestinian security forces.
But though the new unit's stated mission sounds responsible enough - bringing calm to lawless Gaza - it hasn't gained Hamas any admirers. The proposed head of the unit, Popular Resistance Committee leader Jamal Abu Samadana, is one of Israel's most hunted terrorists, and a man linked to the deadly bombing of a United States Embassy convoy here in October 2003. His appointment has raised eyebrows from Jerusalem to the White House.
"If Hamas wants to be taken seriously, it must first renounce terrorism... and looking at the people they are putting in these positions is discouraging," said Stewart Tuttle, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv.
"It's like hiring a mob boss as chief of police," adds Asi Shariv, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
But despite accumulating criticism, Hamas is hinging much of its future on the new unit, and on local leaders like the reedy Abu Mujahid. Resistance to the group's formation isn't being taken lightly, with Palestinian newspapers on Saturday quoting Interior Minister Said Siam as threatening to "turn the table over the heads of all those who are trying to foil the Hamas government." One daily newspaper, al-Hayat al-Jadida, quoted a senior Hamas official warning of a "third intifada," or violent Palestinian uprising, should the conflict over the new unit topple Hamas.
The rancor of those words quickly spilled into Gaza's streets, and by Monday three militants, two from Fatah and one from Hamas, had been killed in street battles east of Khan Yunis, a tumbledown city of about 180,000 people.
Officially, Hamas and Fatah leaders tried to snuff out the violence, but on Tuesday nine Palestinians were wounded in additional clashes, with five children among the casualties. Only an agreement late Tuesday night between Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Fatah activists in Gaza temporarily stanched the violence.
Despite the agreement, Palestinian editorialists were begging the groups by mid-week to stop what appeared to be an impending civil war. Hafez Barghouti, chief editor of al-Hayat al-Jadida, called on the Palestinian Authority - read Hamas - to quit the government and call new elections if it failed to stop the violence.
The stage had been set for the fighting on April 20, when Hamas tapped Abu Samadana, the Palestinian Resistance Committee boss, to supervise the Interior Ministry and the formation of the Police Support Unit. When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the move, the head of Hamas' political wing, Khaled Mashaal, fired back, accusing Fatah of collaborating with the West to topple the Hamas government.
Abbas' criticisms have been ignored, and the Hamas-run Interior Ministry has already fielded 2,000 militiamen for the unit, the bulk of them Hamas members, according to Abu Hilal. Subordinate to the Interior Ministry, members of the unit will be outfitted with special uniforms and will receive the base salary of regular cops, about $400 a month. Posted in Gaza's five population centers - Gaza City, Khan Yunis, Rafah, Deir el-Balah and the strip's northern farmland villages - they will train in police tactics before becoming quick-reaction squads.
The unit will only become fully operational on May 14, but its formation is already paying off, claims Abu Hilal.
On April 24 gunmen from a splinter group of Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades stormed the Health Ministry offices in Gaza, demanding cash and referrals to hospitals abroad. Members of the new unit, Hamas men all, pounced. Within minutes they had surrounded the Health Ministry and ordered the gunmen to surrender. The resulting shootout left three Fatah men wounded and four in custody.
Since then, Abu Hilal said last week, "We have had no security incidents. The streets are quiet." Shootouts and seizures of government buildings have stopped, he said.
Not so, says Dr. Juma al-Saqqa, deputy director of Shiffa Hospital, Gaza's largest. Gunmen still burst into his offices on "an almost daily basis," demanding free medicine and referrals to hospitals abroad.
"The situation is most certainly not better," he said in a telephone interview Sunday.
Critics like Ibrahim Salame, the former Director-General of the Interior Ministry, say Hamas is establishing the Police Auxiliary Unit only to cement its own control over the Palestinian government, not to stop the chaos. Thousands of militants charged with policing rival militants will only "fuel the fire," he says.
A real test of the new Hamas police unit may come if it needs to put down mass demonstrations against the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers - the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - if Quartet members continue refusing to transfer funds to the Palestinian Authority, the source of wages for Palestinian civil servants. During the past week, thousands of Palestinian civil servants took to the streets demanding pay, a small subset of the 165,000 Palestinian government employees who were last paid for the month of February.
Echoing recent warnings from the World Bank and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Fuad Dagma, a captain in the Khan Yunis police department, predicts that rising poverty will increase police officers' involvement in crime.
He expects more wage protests and more AWOL cops but hopes "the unit won't use violence" to enforce order.
"We're all struggling... I've had to sell my wife's jewelry just to buy this pistol and basic foodstuffs," he says, whipping out a nine-millimeter at a cafe in this dusty city.
Few Palestinian beat cops are issued weapons, but guns smuggled from Egypt and sold on the black market make "confronting the militias a job for those with a death wish," Dagma says.
His primary gripe, however, is with Hamas. Even "Hamas' mercenaries," as he calls people like Abu Mujahid, won't be able to enforce quiet "if people can't afford to feed their families."
Dagma isn't the only one disappointed with Hamas. The group's approval rating among Palestinians has dropped to 38 percent, down from about 44 percent last month, according to a poll from the Bethlehem-based Palestinian Center for Public Opinion.
In the palm orchard not far from where Dagma is sitting, Abu Mujahid is busily retraining his band of militants to be cops. He has organized the exercise for a reporter, a number of whose colleagues were kidnapped and released in Gaza in recent months. Headbands praising Allah are cinched around the black hoods his men wear to conceal their identities. Some are wanted by Israel.
Abu Mujahid dismisses talk of a new intifada or civil war but vows "quick justice" for anyone who "comes in the way of our cause."
Following group prayers, the men line up and chant their allegiance to Allah and jihad. There is no mention of the Palestinian Authority, or the Palestinians, for that matter.
Abu Mujahid has posted two sentries to stand guard for the duration of the training exercise, and for good reason: two days after this exercise, Israeli missiles will strike another Popular Resistance Committee camp in Gaza City, killing five fighters.
That bombing is an indication of Israel's take on the unit, says retired Col. Yoni Fighel, a senior fellow at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
Eventually, the Hamas unit will spawn larger-scale internal fighting that could bubble over into Israel, he says. The unit is a Hamas proxy that might "provide law and order in the morning and terrorism in the evening."
Hamas' imprint on these forces can be traced down to the insignia stamped on their weapons. The yellow script on their barrels reads: "the Yassin missile," a reference to Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas founder assassinated by Israel in 2004.
"They donated them to us," explains Abu Mujahid, glancing at four older Hamas gunmen sitting in a pick-up truck to observe the exercises.
Abu Mujahid says he doesn't see his group as a Hamas proxy or as the potential spark for a bloody civil war. "We're turning over a new page in Palestinian history," he says.