Sergeant Mohammed al-Ashi wants to know if the police in the U.S. are feared the way the police in Gaza are. The 21-year-old Hamas police officer has a Kalashnikov rifle slung over his blue fatigues, and he's wiping his hands after a lunch of bread and hummus. He and the other members of his squad have spent most of the morning watching the traffic idly from the edge of Palestine Square. Earlier, he helped resolve an argument between two teenagers, after one accused the other of insulting God. Still, his question is earnest. "For example," he adds, "when we intervene in something, the people always move to resolve the problem very quickly. Do they fear the police like that in America?"
Maybe not at least not the way al-Ashi implies. Indeed, Gaza's police force may be one of the more unusual ones patrolling the world's streets. The force is administered by the tiny territory's Interior Ministry, which in turn is run by the Hamas government considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel. Most of their police cars are unusable, crushed or burnt carcasses after last year's Israeli air and land assault. They try not to get too ambitious with their training, they say, because there is always the possibility of another attack from above.
And yet, in a region known for its police states, Gaza's police force is somewhat of an anomaly. In neighboring Egypt, for example, the police are so notoriously corrupt and inefficient that they are rarely called upon by civilians to resolve day-to-day crises. But Gaza's citizenry frequently ask the police to mediate everyday disputes, particularly family feuds, which authorities say can often turn violent.
Lieutenant Hazim Abid, a police commander in Gaza City, runs nine patrols a day to keep an eye on the streets and check in with his 40-plus men. On a late weekday afternoon in Palestine Square, he is called on to mediate a dispute between a shopkeeper and a customer. Tempers had flared when the men disagreed over whether the customer's phone needed simple maintenance or new software. After Abid calmed both parties down ("I advised the customer to deal more gently with the owner, and vice versa"), he stepped into his little blue police car and radioed headquarters to let it know the issue had been resolved. "The police are there to protect you and also to show people who might do something wrong that we are here," says Abid.
Indeed, when Gazans speak positively of Hamas the Islamist party that has ruled their blockaded enclave since 2007 they tend to focus on how well run street security is. When Hamas' rival Fatah dominated the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, chaos ruled the streets. "The civil police force under Fatah was largely considered to be ineffective," says Beverley Milton-Edwards, a professor at the Queen's University in Belfast, and the co-author of a new book on Hamas. The lack of law and order was a huge factor in the prevailing sense of insecurity in Gaza at the time, she says, and Hamas recognized that. "Almost as soon as they were elected in 2006, they set about creating a parallel civil police force in the Gaza Strip," she says. "They had patrols, they had officers in uniform; they were out in the community, they had a designated phone line ... And certainly since June 2007, they've completely consolidated that role in the realm of civil policing."
But many Gazans also say the changes since 2007 on the streets have come at a price. "The police now are stronger and more violent," says Ramy Mansour, a tailor. "They can take control of a situation by force. The previous police were not strong and didn't have a military force."
Mansour's ire is not focused on the beat cops, but a largely plainclothes division known as Internal Security. "The fear is based on the long period that you could potentially be detained and the torture," explains Abu Anas, a minibus driver. Like the police force, Internal Security is administered by the Interior Ministry. But whereas the street police may be the public face of Gaza's security gains and the day-to-day monitors of law and order, Internal Security handles the potentially serious offenders: those who stand accused of collaboration with Israel or the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority as well as the extremist factions who dare to defy Hamas.
And there is a third security force that Gazans fear: Hamas' highly secretive Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the movement's armed resistance wing, which carries out violent attacks on Israel and whose members have a reputation for being some of Hamas' most steadfast adherents. Referring to both the uniformed police and the plainclothes Internal Security, one civilian says, "They're all Qassam." The government does little to deny it. "Many of the Qassam operate within both the Qassam brigades and the Internal Security," Interior Ministry spokesman Ehab al-Ghossain tells TIME. "In our laws, we do not prevent any resistance fighter from joining the police or a security service, provided that he is committed to the rules and regulations of the department he belongs to ... We make sure that their activities, outside of their official jobs, remain separate."
The Interior Ministry is trying hard to make sure the public can distinguish between its various security services. The police force wears uniforms, recruits publicly, holds press conferences and issues daily press releases on the latest policing victories (which this week included a large search-and-seize operation on expired food that had entered the Strip). Yet skepticism about the force's boundaries is as deep as the public distrust of Hamas, which many Gazans say they hate for its repressive governance and the brutality it employs against its rivals.
The suspicions are rooted in the police's history. Much of it was drawn from the Executive Force, a parallel security body that Hamas created in 2006 after the party's electoral win to counter the forces allied with Fatah, which dominated the police at that time. After Hamas took full control of the Strip in 2007, the Executive Force was absorbed into the civilian security services, filling the gaps left by those loyal to Fatah. "It was a faction-based decision," admits police officer Ahmed Haniyeh, 23. "We joined the Executive Force to comply with orders at the time, to protect Hamas' win in the elections. But we also joined with full willingness, even knowing that there was no salary, because we had a sense of belonging."
Even so, Gazans say, the Hamas ties can get in the way of even the most efficient thing police do: stopping family feuds and other local disputes. The quarrels are often divided along party lines, with one side supporting Hamas and the other side supporting Fatah, and the result is that they're rarely dealt with fairly. "There may be a high feeling of security now, but a low level of democracy," says Abu Mohammed, a convenience-store owner. "There is no doubt that they are doing a certain number of good things when it comes to catching criminals. But they might implement 100% of the law for one person, but only 10% for another person from a certain party," he adds, indicating that Hamas supporters have the advantage.
On his last patrol of the day, before sunset, Lieutenant Abid cruises through Gaza City, eventually pulling his police car up alongside a teenager driving a donkey cart. "Drive on the right," he instructs from the window. The boy nods. "Part of our work is to organize traffic on the spot," he explains later. "Also, if we find a fruit stand set up on the road, we tell them to move." Street security, he says, is the policeman's security. That doesn't mean, however, that the Israelis won't treat the beat cop as an enemy combatant. Abid lost 10 of his police colleagues on the first day of the Israeli invasion in December 2007, when police bases were among the first targets hit. But despite his loyalty to Hamas, he and his men didn't fight during the war: that's not the police force's job, he says.
With reporting by Rami Elmeghari / Gaza City