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WEST BANK: Rounded up in a Hamas crackdown

January 2, 2009 |  1:32 pm


By Ashraf Khalil in Ramallah

An overflow crowd packed the streets surrounding the Hamas-identified Gamal Abdel Nasser Mosque, just off of Manara Square in downtown Ramallah. Worshippers spread prayer rugs on the sidewalks as an array of uniformed police officers and alert-looking men in civilian clothes with hand-held radios wandered the crowd.

The chants started as soon as prayers let out, and it became obvious very quickly that the Hamas supporters had a 3-1 advantage. It also became obvious that they were angry and ready for a rare West Bank show of force.

Dozens of green flags came out and the crowd shouted a simple message: "Revenge! Revenge!"

The Fatah party, which lost control of the Gaza Strip last year and now controls only the West Bank, has outlawed the display of any flag other than the Palestinian national flag. Any glimpse of Hamas green is an invitation for a fight.

The originally planned demonstration, approved by Fatah and led by independent politician Moustafa Barghouti, was nearly dwarfed as the contingents tried to out-shout each other in mid-march.

Then the police moved in.

A phalanx of uniformed and undercover officers emerged from the crowd and shoved the Hamas supporters down the streets, away from the pack of television cameras that waited in Manara Square.

There were no riot police or tear gas this time. Officers began pulling individual protesters out of the crowd and hustling them into the waiting vans.

I moved closer to where the scuffles were taking place. An angry crowd gathered outside an apartment building where several security guards had pursued a group of young Hamas supporters.

One older woman yelled to anyone who would listen: “Let the Jews see this and take pleasure. This is what they want.”

Suddenly I was approached by several serious looking men, obviously undercover security officers. They took away my passport and press card, then asked for my notebook and told me to get into one of their vans.

I refused on both counts. "If you want to ask me questions, do it here in public," I said.

Three of them grabbed me and forced me into the van, which sped off.

As we sped through Ramallah, one of the men who just wrestled me into the van made a surreal attempt to befriend me, offering cigarettes and telling me this could have been avoided if I just dealt with them with respect.

"Don't be afraid," he said.

"No, I'm afraid. I AM afraid of you because I understand what's going on."

We arrived at a base for Military Intelligence, one of the myriad Palestinian security squads that operate under the Palestinian Authority. An officer there ordered me to give up my camera. When I tried to make a cellphone call, I was tackled and my phone and camera taken from me.

After they took a leisurely tour through the pictures I had taken, my items were returned to me and I was allowed to walk out of the base. By the time I made it back to Manara Square, the crackdown had already been completed and the streets were quiet again.

P.S. For those of you keeping score, in nine months here I've been strip-searched and interrogated by Israeli soldiers, forcibly detained by Palestinian Authority police and punched in the face by drunk Russians.

P.P.S. Get news from the Middle East in your mailbox every day. The Los Angeles Times distributes a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates" and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.