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Tension, Violence Running High in Gaza

Times Staff Writer

It’s blazing hot every day; the electricity comes and goes. And when there’s no electricity, there’s no water. Nobody has any money, but everyone, it seems, has a weapon.

The Israelis left the Gaza Strip last fall. But now they seem to be everywhere at once -- on the ground, in the air and even on the other end of the telephone as a voice warning civilians in accented Arabic of impending missile strikes.

There’s no way out. The borders are closed for months at a time to all but foreign passport holders and those with political connections.

“We’re living in one big prison,” said Sulaiman abu Samhadana, whose employees at the Gaza electric company face daily abuse and threats as they cut off power to neighborhoods to stretch the limited supply.

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Tensions are rising among the heavily armed residents of Gaza, say doctors, police and mental health professionals here. Men are beating their wives and fighting with their neighbors. Families are living on the generosity of relatives and credit from merchants, both of which are starting to run dry. Youth are turning to petty crime.

In Khan Yunis, a gritty southern Gaza city that features a thriving gunrunning trade, Brig. Gen. Mustafa Wafi’s police force struggles to keep up. “People have a lot of weapons, and the slightest things set them off,” he said.

Thefts, burglaries and violent neighborhood arguments in Gaza City have risen 70% in recent months, one police officer estimated. Many of the new offenders are teenagers whose families can no longer provide spending money. Their favorite targets: car stereos, generators and especially cellphones.

“It used to be one or two cases a day in our area. Now it’s at least four or five,” said the officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. “It started once the salaries stopped being paid.”

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The wave of euphoria that swept Gaza after last fall’s Israeli withdrawal and January’s landslide electoral victory by the militant group Hamas has dissipated. Hamas’ election prompted a U.S.-backed cutoff of aid to the Palestinian government, the area’s major employer, with an aim of forcing the Islamist group to soften its stance on Israel.

The Palestinian economy has virtually stopped. Unemployment in Gaza has reached 40%, up from 23% before Hamas’ election, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. A May study by the World Bank concluded that estimate might be “too rosy.”

Civil servants, including the police, haven’t been paid in full for five months. Garbage collectors stopped working early this summer in a salary dispute. Electricity has been rationed since Israeli jets bombed the main power station in late June at the start of an incursion triggered when Palestinian guerrillas crossed the border and captured an Israeli soldier, who is still missing.

Since then, frequent airstrikes and artillery barrages have further frayed the nerves of Gazans. More than 170 Palestinians have been killed, according to the United Nations.

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“The mood here changed dramatically” once the Israeli military offensive began, said John Ging, Gaza chief of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Before June, he said, “there was a stoicism. There was an attitude that [economic hardship] was something that had to be accepted.”

For many here, their happiest memories of the last year have been the times they managed to get out of Gaza.

Last fall, soon after Israeli troops and settlers completed their withdrawal, residents knocked a hole in the border fence with Egypt. Tens of thousands of Gaza residents poured through, flooding the Egyptian city of El Arish and buying up everything in sight.

Now the strip is virtually sealed. Almost all Gaza residents are barred from entering Israel, and the border crossing with Egypt has been closed for most of the last two months, turning the entire coastal strip into a slow-burning impoverished prison.

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The aid cutoff, and Israel’s withholding of millions of dollars in customs and tax duties, might have been expected to weaken the Hamas government by driving up civil discontent. But so far, the citizens of Gaza haven’t turned on the new government.

Instead, they may be turning on one another.

Thousands of young Palestinian men belong to armed militant groups. The militarization of Gazan society makes it more likely that otherwise harmless scuffles will turn deadly.

In a personal conflict, “they end up using the weapons that they have to defend against the occupation against each other,” said Abu Thaer, a spokesman for the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militia.

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There have been at least 20 violent deaths in the last five months in Khan Yunis, more than double the usual rate. Many of those stem from a bloody feud between a pair of heavily armed clans in early spring.

But the most horrifying act of violence people here can recall involved neither guns nor grenades, but a hypodermic needle.

Last month, a Khan Yunis man attempted to kill his four children by injecting air into their veins as they slept. Two of them died. The man, an anesthesia technician and a major in the Palestinian medical corps, was distraught over his family’s economic hardships, which had prompted his wife to leave several months earlier.

He spent two weeks on the run before surrendering and is under psychiatric evaluation, Wafi said.

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The spiraling stress levels in Gaza have had other effects. The number of weddings dropped 13% in June compared with the previous year, according to court records. Divorces rates have remained stable, but Emad Hamadto, a lawyer specializing in marriage contracts, has seen an increasing number of wives separating from their husbands and then suing to ensure continued support.

Domestic violence is on the rise, doctors and police say. The number of miscarriages rose 25% in June and July, compared with preceding months, said Dr. Jumaa Saqqa, spokesman for Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital.

“It’s a collection of factors,” he said. “Stress, heat, fear, tension, everything.”

The violence has reached into the region’s hospitals, with at least three major incidents in the last four months.

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In May, a 59-year-old man suffering from heart failure was brought into the Khan Yunis hospital’s emergency room. When informed of the man’s death, his family “went crazy and trashed the emergency room.... Anyone wearing a white coat was beaten,” said Dr. Nasser Azaar, the emergency room director.

Three months later, Azaar remains shocked by the fact that several local doctors related to the man participated in the frenzied destruction.

Last month, Interior Minister Said Siyam deployed Hamas’ newly formed Executive Force to all Gaza hospitals after a clan feud erupted into gunfire inside the emergency room at Shifa. The clash had begun outside but moved into the medical center when one of the wounded men died and his relatives sought revenge on the wounded from the other family.

But the presence of the Executive Force, mostly hardened Hamas fighters, helped trigger the worst incident of hospital violence so far.

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On Aug. 2, members of the force engaged one of Gaza City’s most notorious armed clans at Shifa Hospital. According to several accounts, the fight started when at least 30 armed members of the Jundeya family came to visit a sick relative. Executive Force guards demanded that they surrender their weapons before entering, triggering a confrontation.

For two hours, he two forces traded gunfire on the hospital grounds as family elders tried to mediate. There were no deaths, but at least three Executive Force members and an unknown number of Jundeya fighters were injured.

Mediation between family elders and senior Interior Ministry officials has since produced a public truce. But the aggressive behavior of Gaza’s clans points to a creeping erosion of public faith in the law, said Hamdi Shaqqura of the Palestine Center of Human Rights. In the absence of a reliable law enforcement or justice system, increasingly desperate Gazans are falling back on family ties for protection and power.

“The rule of law has become the rule of the jungle,” he said.

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