With a red armband identifying himself as "morality police," Lt. Ameen Theeti describes his job of the past few weeks as combing the streets of central Ramallah to maintain both "public order" and "tradition."
The new Palestinian Authority (PA) outfit's mission has been to bust anyone caught violating the fast during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month ending this week. That means potential arrests and jail time for simply chewing gum.
Although the enforcement of Ramadan customs is common in the Arab world, this is the first time the PA has instructed police to look for offenders. It's a move seen here as an effort by Fatah to compete with Hamas - seen by many Palestinians as the more pious and less corrupt Palestinian faction - for the hearts and minds of West Bankers.
"If we catch anyone eating or smoking in a public area, we take their identification and we bring them to an interrogation center," says Lieutenant Theeti.
Police say offenders can be held for the remainder of Ramadan, but are usually released after a few hours. Christians, says Theeti, get off with a warning. The morality outfit arrested one or two people a week during the holy month.
This effort "shows that Hamas still carries a lot of moral weight," says Hillel Frisch, a Bar Ilan University political science professor and expert on Palestinian politics. "It's true that its image was tarnished, but in the past two to three years, Hamas was the forces of decency, and Fatah was the forces of violence, dissension, and of internecine conflict."
Fatah has also received help getting a leg up on Hamas from Israel, which released dozens of Palestinian prisoners last week. The second prisoner release since Hamas's Gaza takeover was timed as a humanitarian gesture for Ramadan.
The morality police squad, which numbers only about 10, seems to be more for show than indicative of a broad crackdown on nonbelievers.
Although the Ramadan fast has always been implicitly enforced through social pressures and even though Ramallah is among the most secular of Palestinian cities, locals here generally welcomed the establishment of the morality unit, even if they themselves don't fast.
"I think their presence is quite good. This is the first time we've seen them stopping such people," says Mazen Abu Walid, a water- filter salesman. "Hamas's achievements in Gaza are of a very high caliber. People look up to such behavior. They want to emulate Hamas."
No such morality squad exists in Gaza. Local observers say that in a territory known as more traditional than the West Bank, Hamas has been careful not to give its critics a justification for allegations that it is a Taliban wannabe. …