Hiding in Gaza’s shadows

Times Staff Writer

The street is quiet. Shoes click through the courtyard; the metal door opens. Gunfire from clan fighting echoes in alleys near the sea, but that is someone else’s battle. Karam Tahar has his own struggles as he hides in the shade of his living room, a man caught on the wrong side in a dangerous city.

There are thousands of Palestinians like him. The recent bloodshed that swept through the Gaza Strip left Tahar’s political party, Fatah, defeated by Hamas, an Islamic militant group that now controls the battered territory and its 1.5 million inhabitants. Tahar was a Fatah military intelligence officer, and now he says he is a target, even though Hamas has invited him and other Fatah police and security officials to work for it.

“How can I work with somebody from Hamas who one week ago was shooting at me? Who killed my colleagues?” Tahar said last week as his mother hovered nearby, telling him not to say too much. “How can I live with somebody who still thinks I’m a collaborator with Israel and the Americans?”


His mother cut in:

“We’re afraid to go out. Maybe someone from the other side is watching our house, and they will tell Hamas and we’ll all be in danger.”

Suspicion and recrimination permeate the Palestinian Authority. Last month’s fighting, which left dozens dead, gave Fatah control of the West Bank and Hamas over Gaza. Men like Tahar find themselves in a tangle of divided loyalties and fear about what to do when the balance of power shifts in a land of guns and retribution.

The Fatah-run police and security forces that once kept order in Gaza have been replaced with Hamas volunteers carrying Kalashnikovs and wearing gray fatigues and black shirts. Men and boys in bright green vests direct traffic. There is calm, but no sense of order. An eeriness has risen across the land; on the Gaza side of the Erez border crossing with Israel, there are no police or customs agents, only a few porters strolling through the stink and litter of an empty tunnel.

One of them whispered: “Fatah good. Hamas no good.” He repeated it like a song.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who was dismissed as prime minister by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has promised more than 20,000 Fatah civil servants that they can return to their posts without reprisal. But few of them trust a man they have long despised. Those who may want to take such a chance -- about 300 have reportedly returned -- face pressure from Fatah officials, who want them to abandon their jobs in a strategy to undermine Hamas’ credibility. “There is a threat to all Fatah ex-security people,” said Tahar, who has a wife and a 2-year-old daughter. “Before the coup, I did my duty to help my country. But now I spend most of my days sleeping.”

He glimpsed a crack of light between the curtains. “Something taken by force can only be regained through force. We must politically tighten the noose around Hamas. Things are quiet now because families are in shock over their dead.

“Hundreds were killed in the coup, and when the families wake they will start seeking revenge.... I can live like this for two or three more months, but after that I would think about leaving the country.”

His destination, he said, is not known, but many who have fled Gaza, which these days has been virtually locked down by Israel, have ended up in the West Bank.

Beyond Tahar’s courtyard walls and away from his neighborhood, the streets liven up a bit; funeral wreaths stand pretty in the sun, donkey carts rattle and spin, houses are scarred with shrapnel and armed men in pickup trucks bounce through the streets. Their sounds drift into a neighborhood Fatah office, where these days the pingpong table is silent and not many guys show up to sip afternoon tea below posters of the late Fatah leader Yasser Arafat.

Hatim is happy to talk as long as he doesn’t have to give his last name. A sturdy man with close-cropped hair, Hatim was a Fatah security officer. Three of his friends were killed in the factional fighting.

“Hamas is trying to terrorize Fatah and the people of Gaza,” Hatim said. “I’m not scared. I don’t think there’s a direct threat against my life. But I am careful. As a Fatah officer, the order I have is to rebuild the party in Gaza. We used to have 25 to 30 people in this center at a time. They’d smoke the water pipe and sit for hours. Now only about 10 come. We open it only in the evening.”

A shopkeeper came and sat with Hatim; children played in the dirt outside. Hatim said he believes Abbas will win back what Fatah has lost, but he is also troubled that Palestinians are fighting one another instead of staying unified against Israel.

Hatim is not eloquent when it comes to politics, he just knows that he had a job and now he doesn’t, and he can’t figure out how to stop Hamas.

“We will not turn into some sort of militant gang,” he said of Fatah. “But I know I will not leave Gaza under any circumstances, even if there’s a threat against my life.”

He rose from his chair, told the shopkeeper goodbye. He closed the center’s door. It had been painted with graffiti bearing the name of the Hamas military brigade. It was a threat, a taunt, a way of marking the territory of a new order. He turned away and headed down the alley, barely noticing the faint pop of Kalashnikovs echoing from another clan fight somewhere in the city.