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Numerous Palestinian policemen were deployed in the northern Gaza Strip yesterday as part of the Palestinian Authority's efforts to ensure that the evacuation of Israeli settlements proceeds smoothly.

Several were even stationed in the streets of Beit Lahia. Yet not one of them appeared when they were most needed: when, shortly before noon, a gang of men dressed in black and armed with Kalashnikov rifles began beating up a Beit Lahia resident and threatening to shoot anyone who tried to protect him.

The black-clad men are the bodyguards of Nabil Thamus, commander of what are popularly known as the "death squads." Mohammed Dahlan established the squads back when he commanded the PA's Preventive Security Service in Gaza, following clashes between armed Hamas operatives and PA policemen. The units were supposed to prevent provocations by Hamas, but they quickly began to intimidate many others, thereby earning their repellent nickname.

Because of the public criticism that Dahlan suffered for establishing these squads, he promised, after becoming a minister in the Interior Ministry under then prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, to dismantle the units and integrate their members into other security services. But dismantled or not, "death squad" members continue to sow fear.

Yesterday's incident began at about 10 A.M., when a Palestinian bulldozer escorted by policemen armed with rifles and batons approached a flamboyant villa in Beit Lahia. According to a Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman, the villa is owned by an officer in the Preventive Security Service, Khader Afaneh, but was built illegally on Palestinian state land. Next to it is a small rest house and swimming pool belonging to Thamus, where he and his friends go to relax.

Because the ministry, under the direction of minister Nasser Yousef and PA Chairman Abbas, is currently trying to take action against those who have squatted on state lands - many of whom are officers in the security services - it notified the press, which came to document the bulldozer's activities.

The building was not entirely demolished, but a collapsed wall, a broken tile roof and a destroyed balustrade got the message across. So after about an hour, the policemen left.

But one Palestinian journalist was still interviewing a neighbor, who praised Abbas for enforcing the law and made a few unflattering comments about his next-door neighbors. Thereupon, one of the black-clad men - or possibly a rifle-toting man in civilian dress - attacked him. Another quickly joined in the beating. "Collaborator!" they shouted - the usual method of trying to silence debate. "How dare you talk about Thamus like that?"

Bleeding copiously, the man ran home and barricaded himself inside. The black-clad men ensured that no one photographed the incident. Half an hour of shouting then ensued, punctuated by fears that one of the men would open fire and hurt someone. But not a single policeman arrived to protect the citizenry.