20 May 2006- For many months now, people assumed that the militant arm of the Islamist movement Hamas, the Ezzeddin Al Qassam Brigades, had stopped its operations by orders of the political echelons of the movement. But recent events in Gaza City demonstrate that, in fact, this militant group is more active than ever. Its agenda, however, has changed.
On 23 April, several Brigade members intervened to protect Palestinian Health Minister Basem Naim, from the Hamas-led government, when he was assaulted by several gunmen at his office in Gaza City. Three of the attackers were injured, while four others were apprehended by the militants and turned over to the local police.
This act marked a new phase in the way the Brigades work, which was confirmed by one of its militants, who identified himself only as Abu Mujahed. He said his group has turned to combating security chaos in the Palestinian territories.
The militants who showed up to protect the health minister seemed to know what they were doing. Shortly following the dispute between Naim and some gunmen, several cars loaded with Brigade members, all armed, showed up at the ministry building.
As they disembarked from the cars, they began an orderly sweep of each floor of the building until they reached the minister’s office, where they exchanged fire with the gunmen, injuring some and subduing others.
As for why they were the first to reach the scene, Abu Mujahed acknowledged that the minister’s bodyguards contacted them and asked for backup, and the nearest units were mobilised to protect him.
Following news of the incident, many Palestinians viewed it as a practical application of the Palestinian Interior Ministry’s statements on 21 April, which announced a campaign to root out security chaos and lawlessness in the Palestinian territories.
The ministry also announced, for that purpose, the formation of a new task force comprising several Palestinian security service members and some “volunteers” to combat chaos and enforce law and order.
But the spokesman for the ministry, Khaled Abu Hilal, asserts that the response to the attack on Naim was not the work of this special task force.
“This isn’t entirely accurate. We’re still in the process of forming this unit, but Al Qassam [Brigades’] response to those criminals is the duty of every resistance group,” Abu Hilal said.
In the heart of the packed Nusseirat refugee camp, south of Gaza City, at a small house that seems about to crumble, Abu Mujahed sat with several other Hamas militants, all donned in military fatigues and carrying assault rifles, and discussed the group’s new orders and tasks.
“You know, of course, that I can’t discuss my orders in details, but we were ordered mainly to ensure the rule of law, and that individuals don’t use firearms in public or in family disputes, as well as crack down on gangs and drug dealers,” the masked Hamas militant explained.
Several months before the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last September, Hamas said it had formed a special unit to protect its leaders and other dignitaries. The VIP Protection Unit handles bodyguard duties, house guard details and the escort of the movement’s senior leaders.
Abu Mujahed explained that Hamas members picked to join the VIP Protection Unit were selected on the basis of physique, endurance, experience in handling weapons and melee combat.
They were later trained in the protection of dignitaries and close-quarters firefights. They also received training in security measures, apprehension and car pursuits.
“Since Al Qassam Brigades declared its commitment to the ceasefire in February of last year,” Abu Mujahed said, “we’ve been training this unit and gathering intelligence on all sorts of armed gangs, drug dealers and other criminals.
“When we were ordered to go public after the formation of the government, we started hunting down those criminals, and we still are. But we’ll coordinate our movement with the Interior Minister Said Siyam so we don’t obstruct the work of the authorities.”
Palestinian security services, which include more than 60,000 members, have been seriously weakened by constant Israeli attacks and local under-funding, not to mention the lack of training and corruption of some security officials.
This gave rise to a number of armed gangs and incidents of security chaos, which these services were not able to handle, prompting scorn and distrust from the people.
As a result, several Palestinian militant groups said they will support the role of Siyam, who is also one of Gaza’s most prominent Hamas leaders.
Abu Mujahed noted that the Brigades will not be part of the Palestinian security establishment, but would rather maintain a paramilitary role “to support the efforts to restore the rule of law.”
“We all strive for a calm and peaceful community, because it would be the basis for a healthy resistance against the [Israeli] occupation. The people are our base and they give us strength, and for that we must ensure they don’t continue to live in fear and instability.”
Yasser Abu Moailek is a freelance journalist and producer working in Gaza Strip. He freelances for several news agencies and publications around the world, with feature stories and news relating to the political, social, economic and cultural issues in the Palestinian territories. He is a correspondent for Arab Media Watch.