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A tenuous cease-fire in the Gaza Strip between Palestinians and Israel is holding for now, despite some sporadic violence, but Gaza is still plagued by violence between Palestinian factions, as well as political paralysis. The murder of three children this week sparked quite a bit of public anger and exacerbated tensions between Hamas, which now controls the Palestinian government, and the Fatah movement.
From Gaza, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: A drab military checkpoint, where young men sip tea and brandish automatic weapons, is a banal, predictable sight in just about any other part of the Middle East. But here in the Northern Gaza Strip, where open fields mix with homes, the roadblocks are new and noteworthy. They've been set up on orders from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to try to stop militants from firing makeshift rockets at Israeli towns.
Simir al-Borsha(ph) is a naval security officer with the non-existent Palestinian navy. He and his men have been put to work on this lonely stretch of coastal road, enforcing a shaky truce with Israel.
Ms. SIMIR al-BORSHA (Palestinian Security Officer): (Through translator) We have very clear orders to stop all kinds of militant activities, to enforce the cease-fire with Israel and to search any car for weapons and explosives.
WESTERVELT: Many Palestinians here hope that a temporary halt in violence with Israel might spur rivals Fatah and Hamas to seize the opportunity to ease their bitter power struggle. The opposite has happened. Earlier this week, three children, sons of a Fatah leader, were murdered on their way to school, and yesterday, a Hamas judge was gunned down in broad daylight outside a courthouse.
In the increasingly murky, violent and lawless culture of Gaza, it's not clear who carried out the killings. No one has claimed responsibility. A few token arrests of suspects have been made, but the killings are widely seen as another grim episode in the Fatah/Hamas power struggle.
For many, the targeted killing of the three boys, ages three, six and eight, has marked a new low in inter-Palestinian turmoil. The bullet riddled car in which the kids were riding when gunmen opened fire is now a makeshift shrine at a traffic circle just outside President Abbas' Gaza office. A blood stained child's backpack and bullet scarred schoolbooks are propped on the car's roof.
(Soundbite of political protest)
WESTERVELT: Every night since the attack, hundreds of Gazans, many of them women, pour into the square, furious over the children's deaths. Twenty-five-year-old Enola Abumafkor(ph) is a mother of two and a wife of a Fatah security man. She blames the ruling Islamists for the kids' deaths and the chaos in the streets.
Ms. ENOLA ABUMAFKOR: It's Hamas because Hamas are terrorists. They killed us by the name of Islam. I (unintelligible) like that.
WESTERVELT: While the ongoing protests have the gloss of spontaneity, they are organized by Fatah supporters. But Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and Palestinian president, still comes in for scathing criticism. Many here, such as Enola Abumafkor, say the president has been dithering while Gaza splits apart.
Ms. ABUMAFKOR: He is our decision maker. He has to make a decision. He's weak, and we want to know why he's keeping silent. Why, why? We (unintelligible).
WESTERVELT: Nabil Shaath, the senior Fatah leader in Gaza, says he knows the president looks week and indecisive. But, Shaath says, Abbas is being cautious for good reason.
Mr. NABIL SHAATH (Senior Fatah Leader, Gaza): To avoid a civil war. A civil war would destroy the society, would destroy the chances of peace and will create a situation that is totally unmanageable - Iraqi-style. I mean, he dreads going in to the Iraq model.
WESTERVELT: To try to end crippling international sanctions spawned by Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence, President Abbas has tried for months to form a unity government with Hamas and push the group toward meeting those conditions set by Israel and the West. With unity talks now in tatters, Abbas aides say he may soon move to end the deadlock with a call for new elections, something Hamas calls illegal.
Ismail Redwan, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, warns that if Abbas calls for a new vote, there will likely be more violence. Redwan says Hamas will resist, in his words, by any legal means necessary.
Mr. ISMAIL REDWAN (Spokesman, Hamas): (Through translator) We have the power of law and authority. Any illegal attempt like this will be refused and raise tension across the Palestinian territories and prompt troubles between the factions, when what we really need is national unity.
WESTERVELT: But there were only more signs of disunity today, with at least two shootings in Gaza City, and at the Rafah Border Crossing with Egypt, Hamas men exchanged fire with Abbas presidential guardsmen. Hamas militants stormed the terminal to protest Israel's attempt to block Prime Minister Ismail Haniya from returning to Gaza with what Israel said were suitcases filled with cash for the Hamas government, donated by Iran.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza City.
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