With police absent in Gaza, vigilante groups arrive on the streets

Heads turned as the masked men with clubs walked down a Rafah street, part of a vigilante public security group set up by armed factions in Gaza after the civil police force went underground, saying it was targeted by Israeli strikes.

A group of nine of the men, their headbands reading “People’s Protection Committees” bound around ski masks or hoods, strode through a marketplace this week after first appearing around Rafah late last month.

“We want to control the street to ensure that there is still safety in the country… We are present in the streets to control the streets from all sources of trouble existing in the Palestinian street now,” one said.

The group was formed by the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, along with other political factions that had a street presence in Gaza, and was tasked with ensuring public order and stopping price hikes by market profiteers, he said.

Reuters was unable to reach a spokesperson for the Gaza Interior Ministry, which has stopped operating normally since the war began. Spokespeople for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and another major faction did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

masked gunmen in the streets of Jenin Refugee Camp (credit: KHALED ABU-TOAMEH)

When the vigilantes first appeared in markets, with some brandishing assault rifles, dozens of youths gathered around to whistle, clap, and chant “God is Great” in support, witnesses said.

But while some Rafah residents appeared to welcome the emergence of the People’s Protection Committees to tackle lawlessness and war profiteers, others seemed worried at the idea of armed, masked men taking over policing.

“Maybe if we had real policemen without masks, people who are known to the people, it would be more organized and more comfortable,” said a father-of-four Reuters reached by phone in Rafah.

None of the people Reuters spoke to wanted to be identified by their full names. The vigilantes feared being identified by Israel or by the clans of profiteers whose goods they had seized, one person said. People backing the vigilantes were worried that Israel would see them as Hamas supporters.

Those who voiced concern about them were worried about angering the group or the factions that support it, they said.

Profiteering

Hamas, whose deadly attack on Israel on Oct. 7 triggered the conflict, has run Gaza since 2006, including overall control over the civil police force.

Officials from the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, have said uniformed municipal police in Gaza have refused to escort aid convoys after a number of police were killed in Israeli strikes.

Israel’s military did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it was attacking police.

The conflict has led to intense shortages of all goods in Gaza, with Israel allowing only humanitarian aid into the enclave, trickling in at a far slower rate than food and medicine did before the conflict.

Prices have rocketed, infuriating a population in which almost everybody has already lost their home and now live, destitute, in tents or other temporary shelters with few possessions beyond the clothes they wear.

“The ministry of economy sets the price of every good which everyone should follow, including big traders even before smaller ones,” said one of the masked men.

They issue warnings to traders whose prices are too high and confiscate the goods of repeat offenders to sell at the set rate, he said.

“They are answering our call to protect us against high prices,” said Akram, a Rafah resident infuriated by the rampant inflation who had to quit smoking because a single cigarette cost what a whole packet had done previously.

The father of four in Rafah said he had initially welcomed the idea of vigilante groups, but they had proven ineffective and were going after the wrong people, he said.

“They should focus their mission at Rafah border crossing where the goods come in and they have to press senior merchants to bring down prices,” he said.

Market traders selling goods at a high price were often displaced people who had been forced to buy their goods at inflated prices from profiteers themselves, said another Rafah resident.

“Why can’t the Economy Ministry form groups to do these campaigns and inspect markets?” he said.





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