When Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf visited his hometown of Gaza City recently, he was surrounded by a group of men in shades - employees of Gaza’s first private security firm, according to French news agency AFP.
Guarding the young singer was the first assignment undertaken by Secure Land, a newly formed team of bodyguards whose mandate covers everything from minding VIPs and securing hotels and businesses to ensuring the safe delivery of cash in transit.
“This is our first day on the job and we are securing Arab Idol star Mohammed Assaf,” Secure Land’s executive director Bilal Al Arabid said.
“We have a team of 18 people protecting him, not including the drivers. This is our first mission protecting such a personality.”
As Assaf drove to Palestine University in a United Nations car, his Secure Land minders followed in their own vehicle, a white-and-red company logo plastered to the door: “Secure Land. We make it happen,” it read in English.
Secure Land is a family business, with Al Arabid’s father, Abdel Kader, at its head.
“We thought seriously about this service after we talked to institutions, companies and people, and found they accepted the idea because this sort of service is just not available in Gaza,” Kader said.
But getting a permit to operate such a business from the Hamas-run government was not easy, largely because none of the employees belong to any of Gaza’s many armed factions.
“The permits for the business were late coming because of the sensitivity of the issue,” he said, explaining it was the first time that Hamas had allowed such a company to operate.
Hamas does not allow private individuals to carry weapons in Gaza, unless they are a card-carrying member of one of the factions.
By taking over the protection of many civilian institutions, Secure Land can help to “ease the burden” on the Hamas police and security forces, because such operations “demand a lot of manpower,” Al Arabid said.
Inside one of Gaza City’s handful of sports centers, dozens of sweaty men – young and not so young - are put through their paces in various martial arts and other exercises to stay in shape for the job.
“I used to serve in the Qatari army and I do Taekwondo, so this job is good for me,” said Hassan Al Shourbaji from the northern Gaza town of Jabaliya, who serves as a group leader.
“We have received high-quality training and we are experienced in martial arts, and I also have my personal experience with weapons due to my military training,” he said.
“This is the first company in the Gaza Strip that is not affected by security complications. It’s a private company and has no affiliation to any Palestinian faction.”
So far, the firm has 40 employees, all of whom have trained for two months to prepare for the job.
As well as physical training they have also been instructed in the use of light weapons at a shooting range.
For some international groups, the appeal of a private firm is that it allows them to sidestep the politically tricky need to interact directly with the Hamas administration, which has been boycotted by most Western governments since it forcibly took over the Gaza Strip in summer 2007.
“Some international organizations and private companies in Gaza which have international ties are sensitive and do not like dealing with the Hamas police because of the international boycott,” said Secure Land trainer Ahmed Yusef.
“And some independent international figures prefer bodyguards from a private firm to avoid embarrassment.”
But their role does not clash with that of the Hamas forces, it’s more of a complementary arrangement, he said.
“It’s internationally recognized that governments have to protect public institutions, while private institutions - like banks and tourist facilities and hotels - get private companies.
“We will work together with the government.”
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