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Deadly Feud in Gaza Follows an Old Script

Times Staff Writer

One day it’s a gangland-style abduction, with the victims bundled into a car and then dumped by the roadside with bullet wounds. On another, an assassination attempt in a heavily fortified compound. On yet another, a drive-by shooting that leaves a bleeding man slumped over the wheel of his car.

When rival Palestinian forces face off in the Gaza Strip, as they have been doing in an escalating conflict that has left nearly a dozen fighters dead and scores injured this month, they are acting in accordance with a script of sorts -- one written by none other than the late Yasser Arafat.

The Palestinian security apparatus, created a dozen years ago and now more than 70,000 fighters strong, was specifically designed as an array of competing militias, ensuring that no single commander would grow powerful enough to challenge Arafat. The Islamist group Hamas, though not part of the official Palestinian forces at that time, figured into the longtime leader’s power equation as well.

Now, after Arafat’s death and Hamas’ rise to political power, chieftains aligned with the defeated Fatah faction, which Arafat once led, are scrambling to retain influence and control of their own bands of armed followers, even while taking on the fighters of Hamas.

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“More and more, Gaza is ruled by warlords,” said Eyad Sarraj, who heads a human rights group in the seaside territory where gunmen, in or out of uniform, can be seen on almost every street corner. “We are turning into a kind of Somalia. And this is Arafat’s legacy.”

In life, Arafat was able, though barely, to keep a lid on Palestinian infighting. He played one powerful lieutenant against another, cracked down hard on unruly factions and bought fealty with large and largely untraceable sums of cash.

But Arafat’s moderate-minded successor, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has neither the inclination nor the dictatorial powers to intimidate security chiefs into unquestioning loyalty. And with government salaries unpaid for more than two months, thousands of gunmen are ready to sell their services to whoever can offer them a paycheck.

“It would be incorrect to interpret the violent clashes between Fatah and Hamas militiamen as a precursor to civil war -- it is a simple battle for survival,” Israeli commentator Sever Plotzker wrote in the Yediot Aharonot daily newspaper. “The Fatah fighters ... want to find their place in the new regime without losing their status, their privileges and their salaries.”

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A united Fatah army could easily dominate Hamas, but Fatah commanders have individual scores to settle with one another and don’t always come to their comrades’ aid in confrontations with Hamas.

During the early years of his rule, Arafat viewed Hamas as a powerful rival and subjected many of its members to jail terms or worse. But he also found the Islamist group a useful counterweight to his own restive commanders, especially in Gaza, Hamas’ home turf.

Arafat was content to turn a blind eye as Hamas conducted a concerted campaign of suicide bombings against Israel during the Palestinians’ current intifada, although eventually he became concerned about the extent to which such attacks were helping bolster the group’s street following. Hamas halted its suicide bombings when it entered politics shortly after Arafat’s death 18 months ago.

Within Hamas, many have vivid memories of a 1996 crackdown by Arafat. Hamas leaders, including Mahmoud Zahar, now the Palestinian Authority’s foreign minister, often speak of the maltreatment suffered in Arafat’s prisons, including the indignity of having beards shaved off -- a grave affront to a devout Muslim.

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“It’s not that we want to do to them what they did to us 10 years ago,” said Osama Museineh, a Hamas leader who is the son-in-law of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader who was assassinated by Israel in 2004. “But they fear that we do, and that influences their actions.”

The current enmity between Hamas and Fatah has centered on a blood feud between the militant group and the Fatah-run Preventive Security Service, an intelligence branch that in the past played the role of Arafat’s enforcer.

The Palestinian security forces, which at one point had nearly a dozen different branches, were a product of the Oslo interim peace accords of the early 1990s, envisioned as a way to provide jobs and perhaps impose a degree of discipline on tens of thousands of armed Fatah followers.

When the intifada broke out in the autumn of 2000, however, the line between Palestinian security forces and militant groups became blurry. Many gunmen collected a government salary even while they actively took part in attacks on Israel. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia asserting loyalty to Fatah, has hundreds of former or current members of the security forces in its ranks, according to Israeli intelligence.

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After Hamas won parliamentary elections in January and took power in March, Abbas sought to keep the Palestinian security forces under the control of his executive branch. But this month, in defiance of Abbas, the Hamas government fielded a 3,000-member paramilitary police force of its own, whose bearded fighters were initially deployed at almost every major intersection in Gaza City.

Last week, the Hamas militia engaged in a prolonged clash in the crowded center of the city with police loyal to Abbas, killing one bystander and sending students, shoppers and office workers fleeing. A few days later, Hamas pulled most of its force back to less visible positions but insisted the militia would not be dismantled.

In Gaza, the loyalty of many ordinary Palestinians lies with Hamas. And the creation of a Hamas police force has pointed up the fact that actual law enforcement was never much of a priority for Fatah during its years in power.

The watchful, disciplined demeanor of the Hamas men contrasted sharply with that of Fatah police officers, who can often be seen lounging, smoking and taking tea breaks. The Islamist group’s image of fiscal incorruptibility, burnished by its years of running an extensive charity network, gave it greater credibility as a crime-fighting force.

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“I support the existence of this [Hamas] force because they are the ones to protect our security and safety. No one else ever took a stand against lawlessness,” said Samar Aldramly, a 24-year-old Gazan.

Some of the militias in Gaza are essentially criminal gangs that have taken on the political coloration of their commander. Illicit activity such as smuggling is one of the very few vibrant economic sectors in Gaza these days, and any such enterprise traditionally takes place under the protection, or with the active collusion, of Fatah-linked security forces.

Keeping any kind of order in Gaza seems an almost impossible task, given the sheer amount of weaponry concentrated in the small, crowded territory. And calls for calm from Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Authority’s Hamas prime minister, quickly gave way to relapses into retaliatory violence.

Abbas hopes to quell the internal strife by bringing Fatah and Hamas under a common political umbrella. Last week, he unveiled an initiative meant to induce Hamas to recognize Israel, a step that could bring about a restoration of international aid to the Palestinian government.

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If Abbas’ gambit is successful, a renewed flow of aid would allow the government to pay salaries again, including those of the security forces, which could help quiet the situation. But Hamas has signaled it will probably reject Abbas’ initiative.

Even if there is reconciliation among Palestinian factions at an official level, on-the-ground feuds could still perpetuate themselves. Gunmen in Gaza generally affiliate with commanders and foot soldiers from their own clans. Thus, avenging a killing or abduction becomes a matter of family honor, which is of paramount importance in a highly traditional society such as Gaza’s.

But the continued infighting is distressing to many Palestinians, whether they support Hamas or Fatah.

“I blame both sides,” said Munzer abu Ramadan, a 46-year-old Gazan shopkeeper. “We are brothers and sisters who need to stand together. I want the language of our minds to win out over the language of weapons.”

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