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West Bank morality force arrests fast breakers

RAMALLAH, West Bank - A new squad of morality police has begun detaining Palestinians who eat or drink in public during Ramadan in the West Bank, where the Islamic month of daytime fasting was always widely observed but never imposed.

The 12-member squad appears to be an attempt by President Mahmoud Abbas's West Bank government to challenge the monopoly on religious righteousness claimed by the militant group Hamas, the rival ruler of Gaza.

The sudden deployment of Ramadan police was unexpected in Ramallah, the seat of Abbas's government and the most cosmopolitan and well-to-do of the Palestinian cities. Ramadan squads have not been set up in other West Bank towns.

One recent afternoon, vice squad Lieutenant Murad Qendah got a radio call telling him a suspect was spotted in the street imbibing karoub - a local soft drink made from carob pods. He ordered his six-man squad to seize the man's papers pending investigation. Police say violators are usually held for 24 hours.

"If anybody violates respect for Ramadan in the street, we take their identity papers and hold them for investigation," said Qendah, 27, whose officers wear red shoulder badges that say "morality police."

Police spokesman Adnan al-Damari said police have arrested at least 50 alleged public morality offenders in Ramallah since the start of Ramadan, but would not be going after people who break the fast at home.

"The duty of the morality police is to preserve public manners in public places and to preserve the feelings of the people who are fasting," he said. "Violating the holiness of Ramadan is a violation of people's freedom. "

Islamic custom demands that believers fast and refrain from self-indulgence between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, which began Sept. 13 in the West Bank this year. The fast is largely observed across the Muslim world; voluntarily in some countries and under strict enforcement in others such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

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