Fighting Flares as Gaza Conditions Deteriorate

The increasingly fierce political fight between Palestinian rival groups Hamas and Fatah — worsened by deteriorating economic and security conditions — has many of Gaza's 1.4 million residents bracing for even rougher times ahead.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And these are grim times in the Gaza Strip. It's been more than a year since Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of the territory. But Israeli forces continue to launch attacks on militants in Gaza, who continue to lob crude rockets into Israel.

More than 200 Palestinians have been killed in the past four months. The fighting coincides with ongoing Palestinian factional violence that many think could soon come to ahead.

The increasingly fierce political fight between Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah worsened by deteriorating economic and security conditions has many of Gaza's residents bracing for even rougher times ahead.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

Mr. ROMEO HABIL(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

ERIC WESTERVELT: Fisherman Romeo Habil stands near his wooden boat at Gaza's main port. The strong smell of feces and garbage, which drain directly into the sea near here, mixes with the salt air.

These modest port's barrier walls, a rocky ledge curving in the shallow water, are made mostly out of rubble from Gaza's years of conflict. Earlier this month, Habil watched in horror as his friend and colleague Hanniah Mishar(ph) was killed by a bullet to his head.

The fishermen were pulling in their nets, he says, when an Israeli navy boat fired on the vessel Habil owns.

Israeli military expanded existing Gaza fishing restrictions into an all-out ban in June after an Israeli soldier was seized by militants in a deadly cross-border attack.

Mr. HABIL: (Through translator) The Israelis shoot at us everyday. They usually don't shoot into the boat, just at the water around us. But this time they hit my boat, they hit my friend.

WESTERVELT: Mishar leaves behind a wife and two children. And Israeli military spokesman says its vessels fire warning shots but denied knowledge of any boats or people being hit.

Habil says after his friend's death he spent days in bed depressed. Today, the 27-year-old father of three says he has to go back out to fish despite the risks and the fear.

Mr. HABIL: (Through translator) There is nothing. Who will feed our kids? There is no work in Gaza. We are under siege. Who will feed us?

WESTERVELT: Israel, of late, has increased attacks in Gaza by air, land and sometimes sea to pressure militants, to halt rocket attacks and to stop what a military says is a disturbing increase in the smuggling of heavy weapons and explosives through tunnels near the southern border crossing with Egypt.

This month, Israel's Operation Squeezed Fruit uncovered dozens of tunnels under the border, part of what the Israeli military's chief of staff called an underground city.

Many in Gaza are now bracing for the possibility of a wider Israeli ground push to stop smuggling in the south and the launching of crude rockets in the north.

The Israeli operations continue, along with Western aid sanctions against the Hamas government, for its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence. The sanctions, combined with the ever more bloody internal politics of Gaza, have contributed to an increasingly volatile, lawless and chaotic atmosphere.

The factional rivalry between Hamas and Fatah has led to retaliatory shootings, beatings, abductions, ambushes and a few arson attacks. These days, heavily armed men are everywhere on Gaza streets. Even mid-level businessmen have hired bodyguards.

The phrase, the situation, has become shorthand for everything that's gone wrong in post-disengagement Gaza.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

WESTERVELT: A group of policemen recently took the downtown Gaza City's main streets in yet another protest against unpaid salaries. It's been eight months since many got their full pay. Firing automatic rifles into the air, the police blocked roads, burned tires and forced shop owners to shutter their doors.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WESTERVELT: Violent crime in Gaza City this summer and fall is up dramatically when compared to figures from the same period last year. Statistics from the central police station here showed that murders, armed robberies and a category somewhat unique to Gaza, mob attacks on public buildings, have all skyrocketed. And in a grim circle, the inter-Palestinian fighting has crippled law enforcement's ability to fight and investigate the surging criminality. Thirty-four-year-old Major Iyad Kulab(ph) leads the investigations division of the Gaza City Police Department.

He's a Fatah loyalist in a Fatah-dominated agency, but now reports to a Hamas interior minister. The minister recently created a new 4,000-strong unit called the Executive Force. Major Kulab now races those rivals to crime scenes. He says Hamas is constantly disrupting his work out of ideology and out of ignorance.

Major IYAD KULAB (Gaza City Police Department): (Through translator) If the crime is connected to Hamas, they will destroy evidence intentionally. If it's not a Hamas crime, they will destroy evidence because they're ignorant of how to investigate and preserve it. Hamas just brought people from the streets and put them in the Executive Force. They don't know how to investigate.

WESTERVELT: Kulab says he's been threatened many times recently. Soon after his men busted a car theft ring that he says had ties to Hamas, Kulab and his relatives found masked men planting explosives in his backyard. With the help of relatives, he fought them off. I'm afraid only of God, Kulab says in a catch phrase heard more and more often in Gaza these days.

Then he excuses himself, a family is waiting to see him about a kidnapping. A growing number of Gaza residents are so fed up with the situation that they think a wider internal fight may be inevitable and necessary.

Mr. ASHAF SHANNON(ph) (TV anchor, Gaza City): A civil war I believe is the only solution for Gaza.

WESTERVELT: Ashaf Shannon is a Palestinian-American TV anchor who lives and works in Gaza City. He says the longtime rivals need to fight it out once and for all and determine whether Gaza will go the Islamist route or the more secular way of Fatah.

Mr. SHANNON: A lot of people might think this a crazy thinking, but this is how I believe it's going to happen. If it doesn't go that way, it will never finish. They will never end this conflict between the Hamas people and the Fatah people.

WESTERVELT: But many others dispute that there would be any redemption through more violence, too many civilians they say have already been killed. But there is near universal agreement that very soon Palestinian president and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas will have to make a move to end this downward spiral. None of his options will be easy, almost all could spark more violence. Abbas aides say he might suspend the current Hamas government and declare an emergency, appoint a temporary government of technocrats, or call for referendum and move toward new elections.

Mr. GHAZI HAMAD (Chief spokesman, Hamas): This will not solve the problem. You know it. This region is very complicated.

WESTERVELT: Hamas chief spokesman Ghazi Hamad says yet another round of talks with Abbas to avert a showdown and work toward a unity government is not out of the question but new elections, he says, are.

Mr. HAMAD: People are now are sorting out to make a new elections. People are under now are (unintelligible), unemployment, poverty, a miserable situation, does not - it's not easy out to talk about an election. But we can. I think it is not so far now to create a new government if we cooperate with each other.

WESTERVELT: But Hamad acknowledges the people on both sides are running out of time.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.

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