GAZA Need a policeman in Gaza these days? Dial 109 for Hamas's Executive Force.
Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a picture of an eagle spreading its wings, the 6,000-member security contingent is making its mark in the chaotic territory.
Some Gazans welcome the strong hand. Others call the Islamist movement's young, bearded fighters menacing.
"The Executive Force has tamed people," said Abu Abdallah, a Gaza shop owner, two months after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a brief civil war against President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction.
"They look scary to me with their beards and angry looks," said a 25-year-old secretary who gave her name only as Siham. "Yes, there is less crime, but I think that's a result of fear and not persuasion."
The Executive Force was created by a Hamas government last year with a mandate, which is not recognised by Abbas, to back up the Fatah-dominated police force.
Executive Force men now race to take weapons away from Palestinians who celebrate at weddings by firing shots in the air. Local residents said the contingent broke up several weddings of Fatah activists because songs praising the faction were played and gunshots were fired.
On Gaza's streets, clans with scores to settle have been using stones and clubs, rather than guns and grenades, in neighbourhood clashes.
In a break from the norm, participants in one recent fracas emerged bruised and battered -- but alive.
"If the fight had taken place three months ago, many people would have been killed," said Abu Abdallah, who lives near the scene of the punch-up.
Hamas volunteers have been helping the Executive Force direct traffic on Gaza's crowded streets and drivers seem to be more disciplined in following the rules of the road.
One story has it that a Hamas policeman ran behind a car for 500 metres (yards) after it ran a red light.
"Everyone now threatens to call the Executive Force. Even wives, jokingly, warn their husbands they will call 109 if they don't do what they say," Mohammed said.
Car theft has dropped dramatically, but other property crimes have not been curbed in the economically depressed territory.
Despite Hamas's strong security grip, several women were killed recently by relatives who accused them of dishonourable behaviour.
Human rights groups in the Gaza Strip, where at least 500 Palestinians have died in clan and factional fighting over the past year, question whether Hamas has a legal mandate to enforce law and order.
"Hamas is a force without a law, because the tools of the law are obstructed -- the police, the general prosecutors and the judicial system," said Khalil Abu Shammala, director of the Ad-Dameer Association for Human Rights.
Abbas has ordered loyalist policemen and the attorney general not to cooperate with Hamas's Gaza administration. Hamas responded last week by dismissing the attorney general and briefly detaining him.
Abu Shammala said his group received some 200 complaints and affidavits from Fatah members who said they had been detained and tortured in Hamas-run jails in Gaza. Hamas denies mistreating prisoners or arresting anyone on political grounds.
"They are the men of God -- not corrupt gangsters," taxi driver Aziz Ammar said of the Executive Force members.
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