April 12, 2024

Fears are growing that Gaza could become ‘Mogadishu on the Mediterranean’ | Israel-Gaza War

GAza faces deepening anarchy as the last vestiges of civil order collapse, leaving a vacuum increasingly filled by armed gangs, clans, powerful families and criminals, according to dozens of interviews with senior aid officials, experts and people in the area.

Interviewees described the constant threat of famine and bombing by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), but also a brutal new world in which guns, knives and intimidation often determine who receives much-needed humanitarian aid.

Israel’s five-month military offensive has ousted Hamas from power in most of Gaza, but the Islamist militant group has not been replaced by any other form of governance. The systematic targeting of Gaza’s police force, which Israel considers part of Hamas, and the group’s release of hundreds of prisoners from prisons early in the conflict have exacerbated the chaos.

“I have been robbed several times of both valuable and truly worthless things,” said Jalal Muhammad Harb Warsh Agha, a cattle trader who now lives in Rafah. Photo: Amjed Tantesh

Osama Abdel Rahman Abu Daqqa, 52, a community leader in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, said: “The war has changed everything, but above all, there is now no security. There is nothing left for the weak now. Only the strong can survive now.”

Several senior humanitarian officials used the phrase “Mogadishu on the Mediterranean” to describe a potential near future for Gaza, although most emphasized that it would be premature to compare the current territory to Somalia or similar failed states.

A senior aid official who worked in Gaza for months said: “We have not yet seen a total collapse of law and order. This is partly cultural, and there is a lot of solidarity, mutual support and exchange, but I’m not sure if this is very far away. It’s definitely getting worse. You hear a lot of gunfire now, especially at night, and it seems like families or gangs are fighting each other, and not the war.”

The Israeli offensive was launched after Hamas, which seized power in Gaza in 2007, sent armed militants into southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 250 hostages. According to Gaza authorities, more than 32,600 people, mostly women and children, were killed during Israel’s subsequent offensive.

After nearly six months of war, about 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced and much of the territory is in ruins. International attention has focused on the limited amount of aid reaching the area, which aid groups say is largely due to the Israeli government’s refusal to open more entry points amid efforts to prevent widespread famine.

People search for food in an aid truck in Rafah in December. Photo: Fatima Shbair/AP

Humanitarian officials point out that the breakdown of law and order threatens the most vulnerable and makes delivering aid to all much more difficult. Successive aid convoys have been described as having been looted in recent weeks, some by organized armed gangs and others by desperate individuals. Senior US officials described how “the lawlessness that had always been a problem in the background has now moved to a whole different level.”

One official said in March: “This is a product of, if you like, the commercialization of aid; criminal gangs confiscate it, plunder it and resell it. They converted humanitarian aid into cash.”

Fights for help have turned deadly, with reports of stabbings and shootings, in addition to high numbers of casualties recorded in IDF shooting incidents in recent weeks.

People with bags of flour that the UN distributed in Rafah last month. Photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

Nariman Salman, 42, who now lives in Rafah after being expelled from northern Gaza, said: “My husband and son managed to get a bag of flour from one of the trucks, but on the way back they were stopped by a man who was carrying a large bag. knife and had to return home empty-handed. We ate rice and some beans and some grass. We had to beg for food from the neighbors for my pregnant daughter.”

Shortly afterwards, Salman’s eldest son was stabbed to death during another attempt to get air aid.

In interviews, displaced men and women in Gaza described problems ranging from fighting between families over space in crowded makeshift camps and shelters to repeated petty thefts. Others described what they called widespread looting of abandoned or bombed homes and an increase in drug use after addicts looted abandoned pharmacies. Independent confirmation of the reports was difficult, but many were supported by multiple sources.

Jalal Muhammad Harb Warsh Agha, 51, a cattle trader who now lives in Rafah, said: “I was robbed several times of both valuable and really worthless things. I had six kilos of coffee, which I hoped to sell because the price of each kilo was 350 shekels. That was stolen. Another time, my son’s shoes were stolen from him during Friday prayers. This phenomenon is new in our society and has never been so common.”

Others reported similar incidents. Moamen Abu Jarad, a 25-year-old student, described theft at a mosque last week. “I performed ablution before Friday prayers in the mosque. My phone and some money were stolen from the pocket of my jacket which I left hanging on the wall next to me,” he said.

A major factor contributing to the growing anarchy in Gaza has been the systematic targeting of local police by Israel, which says the force is part of Hamas. David Satterfield, the US envoy for humanitarian issues in the Middle East, said in February that police in the area “certainly include Hamas elements” but also people politically unaffiliated or linked to other Palestinian factions.

Wesam Yousif Rajab, 45, a police officer now in Rafah, said he stopped going to work after Israeli attacks on police stations, cars and individuals.

“The people who are in control of the situation now are gangs and people who have illegal weapons and other resources,” he said. “One of the main causes of this crime wave is that convicted criminals were released at the beginning of the war by the local government, who feared for their lives when bombs hit the prisons.”

The lack of police is a challenge for aid agencies, with some turning to newly created ‘private security companies’.

Salem Abu Haloub, manager of a refugee camp in Rafah, said: “In delivering aid to the area, we are now relying on armed men from the general population to protect the convoy carrying aid.”

Western aid officials said attacks on food trucks were becoming increasingly organized, with “spotters” in southern Gaza passing information about the movements of convoys to leaders of groups preparing ambushes further north.

People carrying bags of flour taken from an aid truck at an Israeli checkpoint in Gaza City in February. Photo: Reuters

The IDF’s use of private contractors to transport food and basic supplies outside the UN system has added to the chaos.

In southern Gaza, Hamas-run ministries such as health and social development are still “virtually functional,” and the group is trying to continue governance elsewhere.

Aid officials said two convoys carrying food recently reached the north unscathed after a senior Hamas security official issued an order for their protection on behalf of the “Palestinian security forces.”

Two days later, Faiq Mabhouh, the head of Hamas’s Internal Security Operations Directorate, who had been accused by Israel of organizing terrorist attacks, was “eliminated,” the IDF said. said in a statement.

Analysts said Israel was close to achieving its main war objective of dismantling Hamas’ military and administrative capabilities, but had not yet formulated a viable plan to replace the previous government in Gaza.

People struggle to buy bread at a bakery in Rafah in February. Photo: Fatima Shbair/AP

Many observers now increasingly believe that there may not be a ‘day after’, but there will be a chronic crisis, and therefore the issue of stabilizing the area even during hostilities is urgent.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has rejected successive US proposals to bring in a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority, the organization expelled from Gaza by Hamas in 2007, to govern the territory. Israel recently excluded the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (Unrwa), which performs many basic government functions, from the north of the territory.

An Israeli plan to rely on local power brokers independent of Hamas and the authority has so far struggled to gain traction. The killing of a clan leader in central Gaza by unknown assailants in mid-March was a major setback. Another pledge from dozens of senior community leaders in Gaza not to work with Israel without permission from Hamas or Fatah, the ruling party in the occupied West Bank.

“If there is no Hamas, no Palestinian Authority… no UNRWA, and Israelis do not accept their responsibilities, what is left?” said a senior Western aid official who has been in Gaza since the start of the conflict. “If we don’t face a total collapse of governance now, it could happen soon.”

In many places, informal neighborhood committees have been formed to fill the gap.

Abu Daqqa, who heads such a committee in Rafah, said: “We try to resolve conflicts in the place of the government, the police and the authorities so that society does not completely collapse.”

Some of these committees are entirely new, bringing together “community leaders, Islamists, various historical Palestinian political factions and all kinds,” while others build on previous associations dating back decades.

“They are the only people we can deal with if we want to avoid an immediate aid rip-off, but it is not a long-term solution,” said a Rafah-based humanitarian official. “My fear is that something will come out of this that is worse than what we have now. This is a very resilient society, but after six months things are falling apart.”

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