As hoards of excited fans scramble to reach Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf, they are pushed back by a group of tough-looking men in shades – the face of Gaza’s first private security firm.
Guarding the young singer on a rare trip back to his hometown is the very first assignment for “Secure Land,” a newly-formed team of bodyguards whose mandate covers everything from minding VIPs, 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 told AFP.
“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 up to Palestine University in a UN 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 reads, all in English.
It’s a family business and Arabid’s father, Abdel Kader, serves as its chief executive.
“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,” the father 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.
In Gaza, Hamas does not allow private individuals except in special rare cases to carry arms – unless they are a card-carrying member of one of the factions.
By taking over the protection of many civilian institutions, Secure Land can even help to “ease the burden” on the Hamas police and security forces, because such operations “demand a lot of manpower,” Arabid said.
– Martial arts –
Inside one of Gaza City’s handful of sports centres, 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 40-year-old 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 told AFP.
“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,” he said.
So far, the firm has 40 employees who 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 by a specialised trainer at a local shooting range.
Arabid said most of the men are fairly fit from doing sport, but they also receive more fitness and security training from the company.
“We focus on individual capacity and give our utmost attention to fitness, and things like the ability to run, to jump, to evacuate VIPs and secure them,” explained trainer Ahmed Yusef, saying they also instruct the men in decision-making.
For some international groups, the appeal of a private firm is that it allows them to side-step 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 organisations 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,” Yusef explained.
“And some independent international figures prefer bodyguards from a private firm to avoid (political) embarrassment.”
But their role doesn’t clash with that of the Hamas forces, it’s more of a complementary arrangement, he said.
“It’s internationally recognised 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.”