A tense calm has taken hold in the Gaza Strip as residents await the outcome of crisis talks between Palestinian factional leaders in the holy city of Mecca. The negotiations between senior Fatah and Hamas officials are seen as a last-ditch effort to form a unity government after months of internal fighting, which has left scores dead — including more than one hundred in the last month.
Many on the streets of Gaza City see the talks in Saudi Arabia as the last best chance to avoid a full-fledged Palestinian civil war in this densely packed coastal strip.
The Islamic University, Gaza's largest higher education institution, shows the deep scars and intensity of the recent Fatah-Hamas clashes. Wednesday, thousands of shocked and curious students toured the devastation. Late last week, Fatah gunmen stormed the 25-acre campus, and set fire and bombed almost every building here — classrooms, offices and large parts of the library are in ruins. The walls are charred. Burnt computers and broken glass litter hallways.
RiHam Rihaan, 20, was snapping pictures with her cell phone in stunned disbelief at the massive damage. She said through a translator: "To know how it was and to see how it is now, I cannot recognize it. It's totally destroyed."
Rihaan, like most here, is keeping a close eye on the crisis talks in Mecca aimed at forging a unity government and averting more internal violence. But she says the destruction of her school leaves her distrustful there will be a lasting breakthrough.
"I'm not very optimistic," she said. "I hope they'll be able to agree, but I don't think so because this shows that some people in Fatah want to destroy any kind of agreement!"
The University has strong ties to Hamas, the militant Islamist movement now in power here. But the school serves 17,000 students, secular and religious — a majority of them women. Witnesses say members of Mahmoud Abbas's Presidential Guard did the damage. The Guard claimed the Presidential compound was taking mortar fire from the campus. But there are no signs of firefights here: witnesses say Fatah men simply went on an arson and bombing rampage.
Hamas gunmen retaliated but did less damage when they attacked the Gaza branch of the Fatah-affiliated Al Kuds University. Kamalin Shaath, the Islamic University's President, says it almost doesn't matter which faction did what. The attacks, he says, delivered more self-defeating blows to Palestinian society.
"These universities are the cornerstone of all society to develop," he said. "So to have somebody attack these universities, to burn, to demolish everything, I think it is outside any logical, any justified basis."
Political analyst Ayman Shaheen, from Gaza's Al Azar University, says despite the optimistic signals coming from the Mecca talks, the fundamental gap between Fatah and Hamas remains enormous. Fatah's leader Mahmoud Abbas has said he'd only sign off on a unity government that meets demands by the West and Israel — that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence and recognize signed agreements. Shaheen says the Mecca talks will produce a long-term truce only if Hamas makes a clear ideological and financial break with its main sponsor, Iran, and embraces the two-state solution political platform of Fatah.
"If Hamas went to Mecca with the same political stance, nothing will change," he said. "The clash will arise again, because it's a clash between two very different ideologies and political plans."
The two sides continue talks Thursday in Mecca.