Masked men in Gaza enforce prices in street markets amid aid crisis

Member of ‘Committee of Public Protection’ tells Reuters armed group is upholding law and order after Israeli strikes on Rafah police; report says the patrols were set up by Hamas

Displaced Palestinians gather for food in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip on February 28, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (AFP).
Displaced Palestinians gather for food in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip on February 28, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (AFP).

Armed, masked men in Gaza have started patrols to stop traders profiteering in Rafah, where more than a million displaced Palestinians are taking shelter from Israel’s air and ground campaign against Hamas, a member of the group said.

Nearly five months into the war, prices have soared in Gaza, with all commercial imports cut off when the war began on October 7, and only limited quantities of humanitarian aid coming in.

The war started when Hamas terrorists invaded Israel, killing 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages. Israel’s air and ground campaign has since killed around 30,000 Palestinians, according to Hamas. These figures cannot be independently verified. The IDF says it has killed nearly 12,000 terror operatives in Gaza.

Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people now live in Rafah near the border crossing with Egypt, mostly in tents and other temporary shelters, after fleeing the devastation in other parts of the enclave.

Recent photographs on social media showed men in ski masks with hoods pulled over their heads standing next to market stalls. In one photograph, two of the men held assault rifles. In another picture, six men brandished sticks.

The men with the sticks also had headbands with the slogan in Arabic, “The Committee of Public Protection.”

A man who described himself as a member of the group and whom Reuters contacted by phone said their action was necessary to enforce law and order because police no longer patrolled the streets after being targeted by Israeli strikes.

Their actions were intended “to monitor the prices and punish those who exploit the needs of the people,” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing Israeli reprisals.

According to the Ynet news site, the group was set up by Hamas as an alternative to the police following the strikes by Israel.

The patrol was seen in a Rafah market on Wednesday by Mohammad Abuemad, a 24-year-old university graduate who fled his Gaza City home early in the war and now lives in a tent.

A tent camp housing Palestinians displaced by the Israeli offensive is seen in Rafah, Gaza Strip, February 27, 2024. (Hatem Ali/AP)

He said police had been a common sight in Rafah until recent strikes targeting them and had been responsible for organizing the long queues outside bakeries, supermarkets, and banks.

Several aid groups subsequently suspended deliveries into Gaza, as hungry crowds were overrunning their convoys, and their trucks and delivery drivers were being attacked in the absence of police protection.

In response, the US asked Israel to stop targeting Hamas policemen who are escorting aid convoys in Gaza, the Axios news site reported on Saturday. The Biden administration asked Israel to stop targeting members of the Hamas-run civilian police force, the report said, warning that a “total breakdown of law and order” is significantly exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the enclave.

Israel rebuffed the American request, saying that a clear goal of the war was to end all Hamas control in Gaza and that Israel was working on alternative plans to ensure law and order.

Abuemad told Reuters on Wednesday that he was concerned by the emergence of masked men enforcing public order. “Maybe they are good, but we hope they act fairly with people,” he said.

“We would rather the war end so the real police force can come back,” he said.

In a sign of growing desperation among Gazans over living conditions, a rare protest was held Wednesday in the far-southern city of Rafah, packed with nearly 1.5 million Palestinians — many of them displaced by the fighting.

Palestinians burn tires during a protest in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 28, 2024 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

“The situation is very difficult in Gaza. We can’t afford things,” Rafah resident Abdulrahman Abu Khuder told AFP at the rally over soaring prices of essential commodities.

Khamis Shallah, displaced from Gaza City, said one kilo of sugar now costs “between 80 and 100 shekel ($22-28), and the price of yeast is 100 shekel.”

The Hamas government should “interfere” to ensure ordinary Palestinians have basic supplies, he said, but “they don’t care.”

While hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled south since the start of the war, those who remain in the territory’s north have faced an increasingly desperate situation, aid groups have warned.

“If nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza,” the World Food Programme’s deputy executive director Carl Skau told the UN Security Council Tuesday.

His colleague from the UN humanitarian office OCHA, Ramesh Rajasingham, warned of “almost inevitable” widespread starvation.

The WFP said no humanitarian group had been able to deliver aid to the north for more than a month, accusing Israel of blocking access. Israel said Wednesday that dozens of aid trucks had reached the Strip’s north in recent days.

Foreign powers have air-dropped supplies over southern Gaza.

A Jordanian military aircraft (not pictured) drops humanitarian aid over Rafah and Khan Yunis in the skies of the southern Gaza Strip on February 27, 2024. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

What aid does enter Gaza passes through the Rafah, where Israel has warned it plans to launch a ground offensive.

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