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DISPATCHES

Gaza's Detectives Without a Clue

June 21, 1994
© 1994 The Baltimore Sun Company, all rights reserved

GAZA, Gaza Strip


They made a marijuana bust but can't make it stick. No crime lab to test the drugs.

They nabbed a rape suspect but don't know his criminal past. No records.

They chase thieves but sometimes lose them. No wheels.

They have emergencies, but haven't yet issued an all-points bulletin. No radios.

You might call them the detectives without a clue, these investigators of the Palestinian police force.

"We are starting from zero," says a sighing Lt. Col. Hamdi Rifi, chief of criminal investigations. "Anything that we have, we are borrowing."

To see the gaps and shortages plaguing Colonel Rifi after his first month on the job is to glimpse the broad plain of difficulties facing the Palestinian experiment in self-rule. Despite millions of dollars of donations pledged by foreign governments, money for daily expenses has been slow to arrive, and it could be months before the municipal machinery runs smoothly.

As for law enforcement, Colonel Rifi can only sigh again and hope that help arrives before the euphoria of freedom wears off among the masses of Gaza's unemployed.

"The most important problem is the economic problem," he says. "We have gotten thousands of job applicants. If this continues, these people are going to make problems. Then the Israelis might go and use propaganda to say these police are not doing their job. But how can we work without the equipment we need?"

As Colonel Rifi moans about his nonexistent budget and heavy work load, he might be the duty officer of any busy precinct in urban America.

With a beefy face, close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a cigarette in his left hand, he perches like a minor potentate behind a squat industrial desk. He issues blunt orders in no-nonsense style, while officers scurry in and out with reports to be signed and suspects to be interrogated.

Here comes a suspect now, a blinking, sniffling man strung out on cocaine and charged with sexually assaulting his two daughters.

He takes a moment to dress down the man, shouting, "You are lower than human!" The man flinches and pulls an asthma inhaler from a grimy pocket. Colonel Rifi orders him from the room in disgust. An officer drags the man away.

"I cannot give you any details," Colonel Rifi says to an inquiring reporter. "We do not want a scandal."

If the suspect has a lengthy criminal record, Colonel Rifi may not know for months.

"There are no records," he says. "The Israelis haven't left us one paper."

That's true, but misleading.

The Israelis collected loads of information on criminals during their 27 years of policing the Gaza Strip and will be happy to turn it over to the Palestinians, says Eric Bar-Hen, spokesman for the Israeli police.

"This includes fingerprint files, the files of people with criminal records, and other information collected on criminal activity," Mr. Bar-Hen says. "The problem is, they don't have any method of receiving information from us. We're completely computerized. As soon as they have a computer system in place we'll get all of it to them."

Computers?

Colonel Rifi shakes his head.

"We have zero computers," he says. "No equipment. We need a lot of equipment. I really would like to let the whole world know what we need to implement this peace plan."

Getting computers could take months, and even then it will take a while to train people to make sense of the reams of information that will pour into the memory banks.

In the meantime, Israeli police would be glad to answer questions about detained suspects, some officials say privately. Just phone them.

But the Israelis don't expect any calls. As one official put it, "Usually when we've offered them help they haven't wanted it, because they want to be seen as standing on their own two feet. They wouldn't want it known among the people there that they were asking the Israeli police for help."

Therein lies another problem for Colonel Rifi's men. Although hailed as heroes from the moment they arrived in Gaza after years of exile in other Arab countries, the policemen are finding that Palestinians are still wary of any authority.

Really, people trust us," Colonel Rifi insists. But a recent case showed how fragile the trust is. Two weeks ago, Colonel Rifi's men staged their first major operations, putting under surveillance a "chop shop" where stolen cars were taken apart for resale, piece by piece. Car thieves are believed to be Gaza's best-organized and most active criminals. When police finally cornered the suspects after a brief chase and some gunfire, the suspects appealed to a growing crowd of bystanders, shouting that they were "intifada" activists being chased by Israeli undercover agents.

The crowd believed it until the police showed their ID cards, and even then there was a bit of lecturing from the crowd about how Palestinians shouldn't fire their guns at other Palestinians.

"There is a heritage of seeing guns here during the occupation," Colonel Rifi explains. "People hate seeing guns. Uniforms, too. That is why our men on the street wear wear civilian clothing," although some Palestinian police, particularly at border points, wear army uniforms.

His no-uniforms rule can sometimes cause confusion, and probably will until all police recognize each other. That's because it is illegal for anyone except the police to carry guns on the street.

So, anyone wearing civilian clothes and toting an automatic weapon, as Colonel Rifi's men do, is immediately suspect, especially when so many other people seem to have the same kinds of guns.

"We have already confiscated 500 automatic weapons," Colonel Rifi says.

The colonel brags that since the Palestinian police have taken over, there have been no murders. That's no small feat in a place with 800,000 people.

The only trouble is, it's not true.

Two men were murdered in the Zeitoun quarter of Gaza City in late May after being identified as collaborators with the Israeli occupiers.

Colonel Rifi explains that this wasn't really a murder, at least not for his jurisdiction, "Because this is a political problem being examined by the intelligence officers."

Oh.

"But there have been no criminal murders."

His greater worries are loose-knit gangs that peddle drugs and steal cars.

His department already is getting help from Interpol in this area.

This is why the shortages of equipment bother him so much. He feels that if he loses ground now on the gangs, he may never regain it.

To make his point, he pulls a marijuana leaf from a file drawer. It is covered by a sheet of plastic. The colonel says that it was confiscated in a recent raid on "a marijuana farm worth $70,000. But the people there are saying, 'How can you say this isn't any other vegetable or plant? How do you know what this really is?' What would it have hurt the Israelis to have left us a lab here so that we could test this?"

For that matter, he says, couldn't they have at least left behind a few fingerprinting kits?

But there was no lab to leave behind, Mr. Bar-Hen says. The Israeli crime laboratory for the Gaza police was in Jerusalem.

As for fingerprint kits, he says, "Usually each technician has his own kit, and, of course, we didn't leave any technicians behind."

Mr. Bar-Hen says he sympathizes with the lack of equipment.

"Obviously the work's going to be harder because of it," he says.

But sympathy won't help Colonel Rifi.

His detectives also suffer from inexperience. He is a well-educated man, with a doctoral degree in law. But he has never been a detective before, nor have most of his detectives.

Colonel Rifi doesn't like to get into details about how many men he has or what their backgrounds are. But on example is his administrative assistant, who spent the last four years in an Israeli prison after being arrested as a PLO activist.

The training for most of the others has tended to be military, as they served in what used to be known as the Palestinian Liberation Army. Any training in crime-solving will have to come on the job.

And perhaps someday soon they'll even be paid for it.

"I haven't even received my wages yet," the colonel says. "I am using my own car for work."

In Jericho, some policemen have resorted to sneaking into nearby banana fields to steal fruit to keep themselves fed.

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