Israelis Kill Seven Palestinians in Northern Gaza Strip

Israeli troops killed seven Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip on Monday, the first day of the Eid holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. Gaza has been afflicted by extreme poverty and attacks for months, and internal fighting between the rival Fatah and Hamas political parties threatens to escalate.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. It is the first day of Eid - that's a three-day festival marking the end of Ramadan and the breaking of the fast. But there are few celebrations for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Today, Israeli troops killed seven Palestinians in an operation to curb rocket attacks on southern Israel.

Ongoing violence in the region has left more than 200 Palestinian's dead since June. Meanwhile, tensions between the rival Fatah and Hamas loyalists continue to escalate.

NPR's Eric Westervelt just returned from a week in Gaza and he joins us now to talk about the situation there. Hi, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Eric, can you update us now on what Israel is doing there in Gaza? What are they trying to achieve?

WESTERVELT: In response to a June attack in which an Israeli soldier was taken captive by Gaza militants, the Israeli military has kept up air and ground attacks and naval and air activity as well. When you're in Gaza, Madeleine, looking out to sea you can see the Israeli navy vessels just off the coast patrolling the waters and enforcing a fishing ban.

When I left Gaza the other day through the Erez terminal - that's the main northern terminal connecting Israel to Gaza - there were several Israeli tanks on the Palestinian side. As we mentioned, seven Palestinians - many of them armed gunmen - were killed today in northern Gaza near Beit Lahiya.

Israeli ground forces, as well, are operating in southern Gaza near Rafah - the border crossing with Egypt. Forces there have found and destroyed more than a dozen tunnels the military says are used to smuggle weapons into Gaza. Israeli military officials say they've seen a rise in the smuggling of heavy weapons by Hamas and other militant groups.

So people in Gaza, Madeleine, are bracing for the possibility Israel could widen its ongoing military campaign there, especially if smuggling continues and if they don't get their soldier back - Corporal Gilad Shalit.

BRAND: Describe for us what's happening inside Gaza between Hamas and Fatah. What's going on with the power struggle between those two groups?

WESTERVELT: That's right. The power struggle continues. Friday afternoon in Gaza, I had an interesting sort of Gaza moment. I was interviewing a Hamas official named Kaleel Nofel(ph) - he's been involved in talks with Fatah, and he'd been up all night in talk with Fatah, mediated by Egyptian diplomats - and he was excited and told me with confidence that the two sides had come to an agreement again aimed at stopping the internal violence. I asked why would anyone in Gaza believe that this time another agreement to stop the fighting would actually work. He insisted it would, said the two sides had set up a joint command center to de-escalate the fighting among other moves.

Just then his cell phone rang and it was another Hamas member telling him that masked gunmen had attacked and shot up the convoy carrying Hamas leader and prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. So that agreement lasted about six hours and there's been more factional violence today. So clearly it's not working and this power struggle, which has been violent occasionally from the last six months, there's fear it could widen.

BRAND: And Eric, what does this mean for ordinary Palestinians who are trying to live there? Here we've got - as you say - violence among Palestinians and you've also got attacks by Israeli forces. So what's it like for the average Palestinian?

WESTERVELT: Well, there's a grim, downbeat mood there. The international sanctions against the Palestinian authority, now lead by Hamas - listed as a terrorist group - has meant government workers haven't gotten full salary since February. So those lucky enough to have a job in Gaza, have little or no money or are deeply in debt.

So you've got ongoing violence, poverty, daily power outages and lawlessness. It's certainly not a happy Eid mood, and many in Gaza are feeling despondent this holiday season.

BRAND: NPR's Eric Westervelt. Thank you, Eric.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.

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