Palestinian clans and factions step in to protect Gaza aid, sources say

Palestinian officials say Hamas’s ability to rally such groups behind it over security shows it retains influence despite Israeli troops in Gaza

Palestinians line up during the distribution of humanitarian aid in Gaza City on March 17, 2024. (AFP)
Palestinians line up during the distribution of humanitarian aid in Gaza City on March 17, 2024. (AFP)

CAIRO — Armed and masked men from an array of clans and factions have started providing security for aid convoys in Gaza as Hamas tries to keep its clout in the enclave, Palestinian officials and sources in the terror group say.

Video footage obtained by Reuters showed a convoy of trucks entering Gaza City with foreign aid overnight, watched by several men armed with AK-47 assault rifles and others wielding sticks.

With Israel sworn to eliminate Hamas following its deadly October 7 raid on Israel, it has become highly risky for anyone linked to the Islamist group to emerge into the open to provide security for aid deliveries to desperate civilians.

So numerous clans, civil society groups and factions — including Hamas’s secular political rival Fatah — have stepped in to help provide security for the aid convoys, according to the Palestinian officials and Hamas sources.

They did not identify the clans and factions but said Hamas’ ability to rally such groups behind it over security showed it retains influence, and that efforts by Israel to build its own administrative system to keep order in Gaza were being resisted.

“Israel’s plan to find some clans to collaborate with its pilot projects of finding an alternative to Hamas didn’t succeed but it also showed that Palestinian resistance factions are the only ones who can run the show, in one way or another,” said a Palestinian official who asked not to be named.

Palestinians rush to collect the humanitarian aid airdropped into Gaza City, Gaza Strip, on Sunday, March 17, 2024. (AP /Mohammed Hajjar)

An Israeli military spokesperson declined comment, saying specific rules of engagement in an active war zone could not be publicly discussed.

Civil order strained

Israel’s offensive in Gaza, sparked by the slaughter of some 1,200 people and the abduction of 253 on October 7, has killed over 30,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials. These numbers cannot be independently verified and do not differentiate between civilians and Hamas operatives. Israel says it has killed over 13,000 operatives since the beginning of the war in Gaza and 1,000 inside Israel on October 7.

Hamas, which has run Gaza since 2007 following a violent coup, has built its popularity on social services, education programs and charities it offers impoverished Gazans.

With public order strained and civil police having concerns about providing security for fear of being targeted by the Israeli military, the safe distribution of supplies has become increasingly hard to guarantee.

Dozens of Palestinians were killed last month after crowds surrounded a convoy of aid trucks entering northern Gaza. The IDF’s probe into the incident in late February found that troops stationed in the area did not open fire on the convoy itself as Hamas had claimed. Rather, the probe found that shots were fired at several Gazans who moved toward soldiers and a tank at an IDF checkpoint, in a way that “posed a threat to them.” Israel said many victims had been trampled or run over, and that its troops opened fire only after its troops felt threatened by the advancing crowd.

A senior Israeli official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Israel was open in principle to Palestinians securing areas of the Gaza Strip cleared of Hamas, and could even approve the formation of an armed police.

“But this is more of a day-after (the war) enterprise than something that could be implemented as a policy right now. We would need to be assured that the individuals have no Hamas ties — and certainly that they are not directly or indirectly serving Hamas interests,” the Israeli official said.

Juliette Touma, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNRWA, had no information about masked men securing convoys.

Jamie McGoldrick, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, said the United Nations was not working with clans.

Palestinians rush to collect the humanitarian aid airdropped into Gaza City, Gaza Strip, on Sunday, March 17, 2024. (AP/Mohammed Hajjar)

“We’ve been trying to get the Blue Police (Palestinian civil police) back on track again. There have been a number of incidents where the blue police have been targeted by Israel, because they regard them as part of the Hamas infrastructure,” he said.

“And so we are trying to find the best way suitable to have delivery of assistance into the north and other parts of Gaza Strip. That is a combination of using community groups, etc. And where we can use the police in a discreet manner as well.”

Shimon Freedman, spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Ministry liaison agency for Palestinian civilian affairs, said the distribution of aid in Gaza was the responsibility of international organizations.

“While we assist in that distribution and we help coordinate those convoys and allow them to go through our humanitarian corridor, the aspects of that are up to them,” he said.

Raid on Shifa

Israel said on Monday it had killed a senior Hamas commander, Faiq Mabhouh, during a raid on Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City that. Some 20 Hamas gunmen were killed inside the hospital premises and another 20 were killed in the surrounding area, the IDF said.

Mabhouh, who served as the head of operations in Hamas’s internal security, was armed and hiding inside the Shifa complex, “from which he was working to advance terror activity,” the IDF said.

Mabhouh was killed amid an exchange of fire during an attempt to arrest him, the IDF said. In a nearby room, the IDF said troops recovered a cache of weapons.

Mabhouh, according to the IDF and Shin Bet, was responsible for the “synchronization” of various Hamas units in the Gaza Strip, including during the war.

IDF troops operate at Shifa Hospital in the Gaza Strip, in a handout image published by the military on March 19, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The slain operative was the brother of senior Hamas official Mahmoud Mabhouh, who was allegedly assassinated by the Mossad in Dubai in 2010, Israeli defense sources confirmed to The Times of Israel. Mahmoud Mabhouh was chief of logistics and weapons procurement for the military wing of Hamas.

Hamas said Mabhouh was responsible for protecting and securing aid trucks in Gaza, and had been coordinating with the UN over the protection of the distribution of aid. He was identified by the terror group as a senior police chief in central Gaza.

On Tuesday, an Israeli airstrike on a home in northern Gaza Strip killed another officer tasked with aid delivery security, that also killed his wife and children, Hamas health officials said.

Separate statements issued in the name of the National Assembly of Palestinian Tribes, and Palestinian factions, condemned Israel’s killing of police officers and members of the popular protection committees in the past two days.

“We affirm that we stand with all our tribes, clans and families in the Gaza Strip behind our national Palestinian police and the supporting protection committees,” said the statement of the clans.

As part of plans for running Gaza after the war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has considered empowering local representatives not affiliated to Hamas or other terror groups, but it is unclear who those people might be.

Gaza has large traditional family clans, affiliated with political factions including Hamas and Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Some of the larger clans are widely believed to be heavily armed. Some clan leaders have publicly rejected Israel’s plan and said they cannot take the place of UN relief agencies helping Palestinian refugees, or be a substitute for local authorities.

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