Fatah 'hawks' use Israeli tactics to keep order in Gaza

STANDING among the mangled remains of the new extension to her home, an elderly Palestinian woman was pleading for justice and space to live. Such cries are familiar in the Gaza Strip, where refugees live in cramped misery, and where Israeli forces often destroy homes as punishment for so-called security offences.

This woman's anger, however, was levelled at a new Palestinian 'iron fist' policy - not at Israel. Her family had built an extra room on a tiny plot of vacant sandy land. Armed and masked Palestinian 'police' had just flattened the paltry structure, saying the plot belonged to the Palestinian state-in- waiting. 'We trust our leaders. But what of my tragedy,' cried Manzouna al Araj. Her son said: 'We were all colleagues in prison. Our leadership should help us.'

As the delay in implementation of the Gaza-Jericho peace accords drags on, the proposed self-rule areas exist in legal limbo. Yesterday, Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, suggested that agreement on terms for withdrawal would be reached when he meets Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, in Cairo on Sunday, although doubt was cast on this by Yossi Sarid, Israel's peace negotiator. 'I don't think that in Cairo the agreement will be signed at this stage,' Mr Sarid said.

In the meantime Fatah, the main faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, has implemented its own peremptory way of keeping law and order in Gaza.

These Palestinians see no shame in using Israeli methods against their own people. 'We have no prisons, no courts, no law. What can we do?' asks Hassanain Zanoon, the Fatah leader in Rafah. Factional in-fighting was punished recently by placing a refugee camp under curfew. 'Israelis destroyed houses which belonged to our fighters. We do it because they are built on our government land,' says Mr Zanoon. 'It's different. If we don't prevent people building on it now there will be no space for roads or markets. It will be chaos.'

Mr Zanoon's small bare office is Rafah's police station, court and social services bureau, manned by ex-prisoners, working for no pay, serving Mr Arafat's cause by keeping what they term 'order' until he arrives. They issue summonses to 'criminals' to come for 'interrogation'. Committees of 'specialists' then decide if the punishment fits the crime and Fatah 'hawks' - the group's armed wing - implement the sentence.

Drug dealers are shot in the knee and gun-runners placed under house arrest. 'We have many problems to solve. These problems were never solved by the Israelis,' says Mr Zanoon, passing a note to a 'hawk' with an M16 rifle.

Solemnly, the 30-year-old explains that the office had just summoned a trader selling Walkers Highland Shortbread that had passed its sell-by date. The merchandise was destroyed. A man who had beaten his wife was summonsed. 'We asked him to come here and he promised not to hit her again and signed an agreement. We are keeping an eye on him now. He is treating her well.'

Electricity bills, like tax bills, have always been torn up by most Gazans, loath to put money into Israeli coffers. Now the Palestinian leadership is helping Israel to collect, knowing people must get used to paying taxes. 'We don't impose collective punishment by cutting everyone off - only those who can afford to pay,' says Mr Zanoon.

The PLO law and order effort is being hampered by a new problem, however: rebellion among its own ranks of Fatah Hawks. A break-away group named after a 'martyr', Abu Rish, has declared new war on the Israelis. Now the mainstream Gaza leadership is contemplating disciplining the Abu Rish faction. Mr Arafat cannot afford such in-fighting in his own ranks.