By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Trained in martial arts and firearms, their muscled physiques bursting out of tight t-shirts, young men in Gaza are increasingly finding work with private security firms retained by banks, local celebrities and international visitors.
Three private security companies are now competing in Gaza, offering protection for high-profile Arab and Western delegations or cautious businessmen shifting goods and cash around the fenced-in territory.
While Hamas, the Islamist group that has run Gaza since 2007, has its own armed units to protect international visitors, it does not object to competition from private companies, as long as they coordinate with the authorities.
Akram Al-Balawi, who runs the Castle Security Company, said he had 6,000 applicants when he announced he was hiring. He snapped up 65 men.
"Our staff are carefully selected, they are body-built, highly educated and with good manners," said Balawi, sitting in his office in the heart of Gaza City. "They are not affiliated with political factions."
While Hamas maintains tight security in Gaza, where around two million Palestinians live, there are occasional skirmishes among militant factions and some criminal activity.
Israel also carries out occasional air strikes in response to mortar fire and has fought several wars with Hamas and other militant groups in recent years.
Balawi said his guards only carry guns when escorting a convoy of money or foreign ambassadors. Major missions, like visits by U.N. officials and senior European figures, are usually escorted by Hamas-run security, he said.
"MUSCLE OF THE TONGUE"
He recently opened the door to women applicants. And, with Gaza unemployment at 43 percent - and as high as 60 percent among graduates - there is no shortage of candidates for a decent paying job.
Those accepted receive paid training at a unit of Gaza's Hamas-run Interior Ministry. They learn martial arts, the use of weapons and how to deal with volatile crowds.
Staff earn between $400 and $600 a month, Balawi said.
Eyad Al-Bozom, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said visits by international delegations are coordinated with them and Hamas's security teams are not paid. Recently their units protected a group of Western diplomats in Gaza, he said.
"(Private security) is still a new experience but we are keen to pursue it and develop it so we give a chance to the civil community to be part of this issue," Bozom said.
At an open space in Gaza, 35 new applicants were put through their paces, carrying out simulations on how to protect clients and get them away from danger. A gun, an AK-47 rifle and a submachine gun were used in the drill.
"We learnt that using a weapon is the last resort," said Islam Salama, 21, an undergraduate in Arabic. "Before the weapon comes the muscle of the tongue."
Saeed Youssef, a 25-year-old business graduate, said he rushed to apply because work opportunities in Gaza were so scarce.
"We are forced to cope with the labor market. I needed the job to build a life, have a future," he said. "People view the unemployed as losers, even if they are educated."
(Writing by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Luke Baker and Andrew Heavens)