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Behind the Headlines on Gaza Streets, Fear Spreads

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Mohammed Abu-Jarbon operates a radio repair shop in central Gaza. His small business in Nuseirat Camp has survived under economic sanctions that have devastated the Palestinian economy.

“My customers always request Al-Aksa radio station,” which is broadcast by Hamas, says Abu-Jarbon, 20. “People here support Hamas because Fatah is seen as part of the embargo.”

Rana, his 22-year-old sister and a Fatah supporter, predicts Hamas, the terrorist group that precipitated an international aid cutoff when it won control of the P.A. Parliament and Cabinet last January, will take the P.A. presidency as well if new elections are held.

“There must be an agreement between Fatah and Hamas to hold elections, otherwise there will be bloodshed,” warns Rana, a graduate of Islamic University who, like nearly half of Gaza residents, is unemployed.

A recent renewal of internecine violence between Fatah and Hamas supporters in the Gaza Strip has claimed the lives of more than 40 Palestinians and injured dozens over the past month. The violence, which some fear foreshadows civil war, could deal a serious blow to the call by P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah for early elections.

Fierce gunbattles have erupted on Gaza streets between Hamas’ Executive Force and the P.A. Presidential Guard and other security forces loyal to Fatah. Hamas set up the Executive Force in May, shortly after taking power in March.

Abbas recently declared the militia illegal and ordered it disbanded after members attacked a senior Fatah official in his home, killing him and wounding family members. Hamas has warned that any attempt to disband the Executive Force will be met with violence.

The existence of parallel armed security forces in conflict with each other has created widespread fear and confusion among Gaza residents.

Hamas demonstrated its military prowess during the recent clashes, but many see the internecine violence as a moral blemish on the movement. Much of the public held Hamas responsible for a mid-December drive-by shooting in Gaza that claimed the lives of three children of a senior P.A. intelligence officer and Fatah member.

Repeated cease-fires between Fatah and Hamas, including some brokered by Egypt or by other Palestinian terrorist groups, have lasted no longer than days, in some cases just hours. Meanwhile, Fatah and Hamas continue to abduct each other’s members.

Nasser and Ghada and their four children live in the heart of the Zeitoun neighborhood, a Hamas stronghold in Gaza City where gunbattles have erupted between the Executive Force and the Dougmoush family. Dougmoush family members also are affiliated with the Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella organization of terrorist factions, and with Hamas itself, but they united against Hamas after two cousins acting as bodyguards to a senior Fatah leader were shot dead.

The family agrees that new elections would only lead to more violence.

“Every time I leave the house I am overcome with fear,” says Nasser, 40, a Fatah supporter who nevertheless attributes the current crisis to Abbas’ poor leadership. “Hamas has more weapons than the Fatah-affiliated security forces.”

“We feel more threatened by internal violence than by Israel,” says Ghada.

According to an annual report published by the Israeli nongovernmental organization B’Tselem, 405 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli forces since June 25, when gunmen from Hamas and other terrorist groups kidnapped an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid. That figure includes 88 children and 205 bystanders who did not take part in the hostilities, according to B’Tselem.

The Israeli government, which often disputes Palestinian casualty numbers, has not officially reacted to the report.

Before the outbreak of internal violence, Gaza already was engulfed in a security crisis, mostly perpetrated by militants from Fatah’s Al-Aksa Brigades or members of large clans acting above the law. The P.A. police force — under the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry but largely composed of Fatah members loyal to Abbas — has not been used to stop the violence.

Abbas’ office controls the Presidential Guard, National Intelligence and National Security forces, while the Interior Ministry controls the police, Preventive Security Services and the Executive Force. There is little coordination between security forces, although Interior Minister Sayed Seyam of Hamas nominally answers to Abbas.

The Executive Force, now on the government’s payroll, is comprised mostly of members of Izzedine Al-Kassam, Hamas’ military wing. The 5,000-strong force is in the process of being integrated into the P.A. police, according to senior commanders.

The Bush administration has said it will provide $86.4 million to strengthen security forces loyal to Abbas. In addition, members of the Al-Aksa Brigades claim that a new “security and protection force” is being formed in Gaza, financed by senior Fatah legislator Mohammed Dahlan and approved by Abbas.

“There are 3,000 members from my neighborhood in Gaza City alone,” one mid-level fighter reported. He claims the force will protect Fatah members and eventually will be deployed on the streets.

Fatah officials say the new security force will try to quiet the situation, but many Gazans see a new Fatah-affiliated force as a recipe for further violence. They hope a national unity government between Fatah and Hamas could end the internal clashes and convince the international community to lift sanctions.

But Hamas has refused international conditions for aid — renouncing violence, recognizing Israel’s right to exist and honoring past P.A. agreements with Israel.

P.A. employees have gone unpaid for 10 months, and with P.A. payrolls wildly inflated, that affects a quarter of the population. The P.A. security forces have gone empty-handed as well.

Teachers and healthcare workers have been paid “allowances” under a mechanism set up by the European Union to bypass the Palestinian Authority and funnel aid directly to Palestinians.

A year ago, Palestinians were eager for competitive democracy as legislative elections approached. Now Gazans hope the outcome of a new election will return control of the presidency and the legislature to a single party to prevent further violence.

But Fatah, which dominated Palestinian politics for 40 years until last winter, has done little in opposition to shake its reputation for corruption.

“I’m not sure if Fatah will win,” said Enolla Mathkour, a 25-year old business student and Fatah supporter who wants early elections, “but we need one leader, not two.”

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