Confronting crime in civilian dress

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It was after two in the morning on January 31when the Nablus police department, working under curfew, received a call. The caller reported that someone was using electric shears to slice through the courthouse windows.

The report left the police department bewildered. Should they risk their lives by going out into the city streets where Israeli troops occupying the area might open fire on any suspicious target, especially at night? Or should they submit to their fate, and wait until the morning to discover what had been taken?

After consulting with governorate police chief Brigadier Musa Jadallah, a group finally left the department in a civilian vehicle. They took a route circumventing the Israeli tanks and other military vehicles patrolling through the night.

That wasn’t their only worry, however. Whoever was breaking into the courthouse with such high-tech equipment was no doubt armed, while the police had only their bodies – easily damaged – and a less-than-urgent desire to fulfill their duties.

“The police exposed themselves to danger, but what work do we ever do that is not subject to danger?” poses Jadallah, who comes to his office in the police station despite the curfew imposed on Nablus. “Even our presence in the station during curfew or our moving about, just like all other citizens under curfew, is itself a danger.”

Still, he adds, “the target was a big one and we couldn’t afford to be late or negligent, even under such extreme danger. Because criminals are intrinsically cowards, the police were able to arrest those who broke into the court, all three of them, without any resistance.”

Interrogation of the three revealed that they had planned to steal a counterfeiting case file that was being used in charges filed against them in court by the attorney general’s office. The counterfeiting case had been uncovered about a month and a half ago and entrusted to the attorney general.

Police files in Nablus indicate a substantial increase in crime over the last year, particularly in the period following the Israeli invasion last April. Most of the activity has been petty unorganized crime like theft and counterfeiting. id.

“Some people took advantage of the circumstances the city was in after the invasion, while the city was usually under curfew, to commit various types of crimes,” comments Jadallah, “particularly crimes that provided them with money, such as theft and counterfeiting, as well as some attacks and blood feuds usually the result of long-term fights.” Nablus has recently been the site of incidents resulting in death, injury, and arson.

The reputation of the police and Palestinian Authority institutions in general is one of powerlessness and an inability to confront crimes of this kind. But Jadallah says that the police get involved in all crimes and misdemeanors. They investigate everything, submit their files to the attorney general, and take all of the necessary legal steps, he avers.

Some issues are followed up on with cooperation from the city’s social organizations, Jadallah says, referring to family disputes or disagreements between armed groups. In these cases, a committee of civil institutions headed by the governor is usually created to follow up on the case and seek reconciliation.

The Nablus police department is proud of its success at rebuilding after the series of Israeli invasions of the city. It now provides a modicum of security for the survival of commercial and financial activity in the city, which is considered the major Palestinian economic center.

“All of the economic and financial institutions and companies work in safety and there is no sleep lost over them,” reports Jadallah. There are 13 banks in Nablus, as well as dozens of companies and factories. One of the electronics companies was recently robbed, but the police apprehended the thieves within a matter of days.

“The police have uncovered most cases of crime in the governorate, and this generates a certain peace of mind among residents and property owners that the institutions are capable of protecting their property despite the tense circumstances,” says director of governorate police departments Major Rashid Al Hamadan.

“It’s true that we are facing serious difficulties in these circumstances, but we utilize a variety of means of fighting crime, no matter how small,” he added. “We turn to local activists, individuals, and families, and are warmly welcomed in this because our society, by its very nature, rejects crime and aggression no matter how much poverty grows.”

Palestinians have a natural abhorrence for crime due to the continued [Israeli] occupation; this is seen as a means of self-defense before the threats to their security and existence. The society has maintained a very low crime rate throughout the past decades of occupation, and crime is considered a form of destruction that serves the occupation and its goals.

During the incursion into the city last April, the occupying Israeli army invaded the Nablus central prison. Symbolically, the authorities freed the prisoners and detained a Palestinian police officer.

The police recently reopened the prison and have resumed detention of those charged with committing crimes.

When the city is under curfew (which can last for weeks), the police turn to the Red Cross to deliver food to the prisoners, says Jadallah. Nablus has endured more time under curfew than any other Palestinian city, spending more that six months under curfew since last April’s invasion.

During the state of emergency created by successive Israeli invasions and continued curfew, the city experienced a collapse of public order. The police have only recently returned to patrolling on foot in civilian dress, and directing traffic in the most crowded streets.

“We try to understand when merchants spread their wares in the city center or when drivers park in prohibited areas, or break traffic laws, because this all occurs for security reasons related to the surprise attacks of occupation patrols,” explains the police chief.

Jadallah says, “What is happening in Nablus is unnatural, and we are working under extraordinary circumstances to try to make people’s lives normal.”

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