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New "morality police" has begun detaining Palestinians who eat or drink in public during the fasting month of Ramadan, a first in the West Bank where Muslim custom was always widely observed, but never before imposed.
The 12-member squad with special red badges appears to be an attempt by PA President Mahmoud Abbas's West Bank government to challenge the claim of rival Hamas, the ruler of Gaza, to a monopoly on religious righteousness.
Islamic custom demands that believers fast and refrain from self-indulgence between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, which this year began Sept. 13. Across the Muslim world, the fast is largely observed, though in some countries compliance is voluntary and in others, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, it's strictly enforced.
In Ramallah, the seat of Abbas's West Bank government, the deployment this year of a Ramadan police seemed somewhat unexpected. Ramallah is the most cosmopolitan and well-to-do of the Palestinian cities.
However, Lt. Murad Qendah of the vice squad said he's been assigned to stamp out public breaches.
"If anybody violates this respect publicly in the street, we take their identity papers and hold them for investigation," said Qendah, 27, who led a six-man squad on patrol one recent afternoon.
While observing worshippers arriving at one of the town's main mosques, Qendah received a radio call telling him a suspect has been spotted imbibing "karoub" - a traditional local soft drink made from carob pods - in the street. He ordered the man's papers seized, pending investigation. Police say violators are usually held for 24 hours.
The sudden appearance of Ramadan enforcers is being seen as an attempt by Abbas's largely secular Fatah movement to challenge Hamas on its traditional turf - religion. Hamas won a landslide parliamentary election victory in 2006, then ran Fatah out of the Gaza Strip by force in June.
"It's an attempt to ride the wave of religion that is crashing into the Middle East," political analyst Nasser Laham.
Ironically in Gaza, where Hamas has set up its own administration to rival with Abbas's West Bank-based government, no such patrol is active.
In addition to booking smokers, snackers and carob-juice drinkers, Qendah is also on the alert for young men whistling at girls or drivers playing their car stereos at excessive volume.
Police spokesman Adnan al-Damari said police arrested at least 50 alleged public morality offenders in Ramallah since the start of Ramadan, but would not be going after fast-breakers in their own homes.
"The duty of the morality police is to preserve public manners in public places, and to preserve the feelings of the people who are fasting," he said. "Violating the holiness of Ramadan is a violation of people's freedom."
Although the piety squad has government sanction, Cabinet minister Ashraf al-Ajrami, said he is uncomfortable with the operation and the impression that the government was trying to be more zealous than Hamas.
"We are studying this issue, and there's a possibility we shall end it," he said. "We don't want to change the order of things and appear as if we are following in the footsteps of somebody or imitating somebody."
Ramadan squads have not been set up in other West Bank towns.
On the crowded streets of Ramallah opinion was divided.
Writer Hassan Dandees, 58, said the government was right to seek to uphold religious standards. "This is not a violation of anybody's freedom," he said. "Ramadan has a holiness every person should respect."
Ruba el-Mimi, 21, said she opposes the police action.
"It interferes with the privacy of the individual. People are free to fast or not," she said. "If somebody is not fasting, he's not doing harm."
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