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What to know about Gaza police amid struggle to protect aid deliveries

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JERUSALEM — Attacks on Gaza’s police force as Israel’s invasion wears down what remains of Hamas’s governing infrastructure have helped to cripple humanitarian efforts in the enclave, the United Nations and humanitarian organizations say, with the territory’s slide toward famine intensifying amid a struggle to provide security for aid deliveries once they enter Gaza.

Israel has said it will not cease its war in the Gaza Strip until Hamas is eliminated. The militant group, which led the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, has long controlled the enclave, including its police force.

The armed police force, which had helped escort aid convoys in the increasingly desperate Gaza Strip, has become the target of Israeli strikes, including one that killed a high-ranking commander on Monday. The convoys have since been left unguarded and subject to looting in a cycle of desperation worsened by a lack of necessities.

Here’s a look at the police force’s role in Gaza.

What was the role of police before the war?

When Hamas violently seized power in Gaza in 2007 following a civil war with its Palestinian rival, Fatah, it took control of the civilian police force in Gaza, which is separate from Hamas’s military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades. Hamas already had an extensive social network in the Palestinian territories. After the Gaza takeover and subsequent Israeli-led blockade, the group became further embedded in politics and society.

Hamas faced no small task in policing the at times chaotic territory, where influential clans and criminal groups had filled power vacuums left by the chaos of the second Palestinian uprising. When Hamas took control, “its detractors argued that it has swallowed ‘a poison pill’” in assuming responsibility for law and order in the territory, historian Yezid Sayigh wrote in his 2011 book, “We Serve the People: Hamas Policing in Gaza.”

“Clearly this has not happened. Quite the reverse,” he wrote. As crime and inter-clan clashes declined, Hamas gained in popularity. Hamas also imposed a highly conservative form of Islamic rule in Gaza and repressed opposition. Many Gazans grew to resent what they saw as the Hamas-led government’s corruption and nepotism.

Police had typical roles, such as responding to crimes and family disputes and otherwise enforcing laws. Their job was also “to play a political role in arresting dissidents and opposition,” Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a phone interview.

Compared to other security services, however, “the civilian police was one of the least empowered,” he said. “It simply was not seen as an important political agency.”

As a result, “they have a track record that when it comes to civilian stuff, they still have the reputation of being effective.”

The Gaza civil police could not be reached for comment because of the security situation.

What role have the police played during the war?

The police had been tasked with ensuring safe passage for convoys of aid trucks navigating the rubble and throngs of desperately hungry people amid the war, so they are “perhaps the most visible manifestation of Hamas governance in Gaza,” Omari said.

Police have come under attack by the Israel Defense Forces as it seeks to eliminate Hamas from Gaza. In northern Gaza, where aid convoys are rare and the lawlessness is most acute, some police officers have ditched their uniforms, hoping that dressing in plainclothes could help them avoid being targeted by Israeli forces.

“With the departure of police escorts, it has been virtually impossible for the U.N. or anyone else … to safely move assistance in Gaza because of criminal gangs,” U.S. Ambassador David Satterfield, appointed by President Biden to coordinate humanitarian assistance to Gaza, told The Washington Post last month.

The police force’s role in civilian security matters has presented a conundrum. “There is no other option right now” for security, Omari said. “Yet if you allow Hamas to do the security for these kind of things, you’re acknowledging that Hamas remains the de facto authority in Gaza. So really the challenge is: How do you balance these two competing interests?”

Such attacks are “part of not allowing Hamas to return as a civilian body ruling Gaza,” Mustafa Ibrahim, a political analyst, said in a phone interview from Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. “This won’t address the issue and just kills these people without setting a clear plan” or alternative, he said.

U.S. and U.N. officials have raised concerns about the ability to distribute aid without safeguards for the convoys. The hurdles in distributing aid by land have led to airdrops of small amounts by countries including Jordan and the United States. Israel has expressed concerns that Hamas members could siphon aid away from civilians, directing it to militants.

In addition to the airdrops, humanitarian organizations and the United States have turned to the sea as another channel for deliveries of aid to Gaza. The United States is constructing a temporary pier off Gaza’s coastline to receive deliveries. But that aid would still need to be distributed, posing more difficulties in the absence of protection for those dispensing the food and supplies.

Israel has blamed the U.N. for the slow deliveries, but aid groups have said Israel needs to facilitate the entry of more aid by truck into Gaza and ensure its safe delivery and distribution, rather than turning to less efficient workarounds.

In recent weeks in the north, including Gaza City, police and powerful clans have teamed up to form committees to try to prevent people from looting trucks and stealing aid, residents told The Post.

What does Israel say about police in Gaza?

The IDF did not respond to a request for comment about its policies and actions toward police in Gaza, but it said in a previous response to The Post about police guarding aid convoys that the IDF was “operating to dismantle Hamas military capabilities. Elements involved in military activity may be targeted.”

“Hamas police is Hamas,” Col. Elad Goren of COGAT, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, said at a March 14 press briefing. “And we won’t allow Hamas to control the humanitarian assistance.”

Muhammad Shehada, a Copenhagen-based researcher from Gaza, said it wasn’t that simple and called the makeup of Hamas’s police “very diverse. It includes some Hamas members for sure. It includes some former employees of the Palestinian Authority and some of the general public.”

Omari said a police officer is expected to be “someone who’s adhering to the ideology,” but to a lesser extent than the “really hardcore” members of the militant wing.

“When it comes to saying that there are elements of Hamas in the police, it’s not a question of ideological affiliation. It’s a question when it comes to warfare — were these elements active combatants against Israeli forces?” Shehada said. “Hamas had 17 years to build up in Gaza, and they are part of society. So, of course, Hamas members have daytime jobs.”

Michael Milshtein, a former head of the Palestinian division of Israeli military intelligence, told The Post that Hamas police officials often wear “double hats” and are involved with the military wing. He spoke after Israel killed Faiq Mabhouh, a police official, this week.

Israel said Mabhouh was coordinating military activities, while the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV network said he was a director of police operations who coordinated and protected aid deliveries. The Washington Post could not independently confirm his role.

Either way, his senior role was probably enough to make him a target, Milshtein said.

The Israeli military struck a food distribution center this month run by UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, killing Muhammad Abu Hasna, who Hamas said was the deputy head of police operations in Rafah. Israel described him as a Hamas commander.

Pietsch reported from Washington. Louisa Loveluck in London and Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.

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