Gaza watches and waits

Times Staff Writer

By hand and donkey cart, young men removed the old Palestinian order in the Gaza Strip, one floor tile at a time.

Sledgehammers have left just the shell of the home of Mohammed Dahlan, the strongman here before Hamas fighters routed his Fatah movement in street battles last week. To Hamas supporters and many other Gazans, the villa was a symbol of Fatah's corruption during its years in charge.

"It's over for him -- for Dahlan and his group," said Mohammed, 20, who declined to give his last name as he wrested free tiles this week. "In Gaza, he has no chance to sit again."

All around Gaza City are signs of a stunning new reality and broad uncertainty over the future of the impoverished coastal strip that is home to 1.5 million Palestinians.

Hamas, the Islamic militant movement formed in 1988 and which won Palestinian parliamentary elections last year, is now solely in command of the impoverished coastal strip. Bearded men with assault rifles and wearing the blue camouflage uniforms of Hamas' Executive Force patrol in pickups that used to belong to Fatah. Young volunteers in green Hamas baseball caps direct traffic.

At the Unknown Soldier's Square, the statue is gone, apparently toppled in celebration of Fatah's fall. And at the site of Dahlan's gutted home, Hamas leaders hope to erect a mosque dedicated to a member they say was slain by his security forces.

In one sense, Hamas' visible street presence has brought a feeling of normality after a week of sometimes savage fighting that saw gunmen tossed from rooftops and shot execution-style in the street. Nearly 150 people, including 36 civilians, were killed in those clashes, according to a tally by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza City.

The improvised checkpoints erected by the two factions have disappeared, and the streets are again clogged with traffic. Stores are open, though not bustling because money remains scarce. Fears that Israel's closure of Gaza's crossing points would cause severe shortages of food and merchandise have so far not materialized.

Hamas supporters are talking giddily about their "liberation of Gaza" from Fatah leaders, who they say were corrupt and aligned with Israel and the United States. They promise order while savoring the vengeance delivered against Fatah security forces, which Hamas accused of brutality.

"This conflict was not between Palestinians and Palestinians. It was between those who are right and those who are wrong," declared Hussein abu Assal, 30, who said he belongs to Hamas' military wing, the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade, and to the Executive Force. "It was between those who are following Israel and the Americans, and Palestinians."

Abu Assal pulled up both legs of his khaki pants to reveal long patches of shiny flesh -- scars from blowtorch burns that he said were inflicted by members of Fatah's Preventive Security Service during a 1990s crackdown on Hamas.

He blamed Fatah gunmen for the violence that convulsed Gaza for months after Hamas' parliamentary victory in January 2006.

"We helped Gaza get rid of the chaos and anarchy of the criminals and corrupt," Abu Assal said. "Now we can feel secure and thank God."

Despite Hamas' triumphal rhetoric, however, many Gazans feel lingering shock over the severity of the fighting, which flooded hospitals with the injured and turned apartments into shooting galleries.

Some high-rise buildings, pocked by bullets and rocket-propelled grenades, remain windowless and scorched from the fighting.

"People do not understand how the whole thing collapsed so quickly," said Bassam Nasser, who heads the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution in Gaza City.

The calm masks widespread unease among Gazans over where they stand in the world, and how they will get by. Still looming is a darker question: Is the violence really over?

Many in Gaza fear their isolation is about to get worse. Residents have long described the coastal enclave as a big prison. Now its borders with Israel and Egypt are sealed. And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, who labeled Hamas' takeover a coup, has appointed a new government based in the West Bank, in effect leaving Gaza to the militant group.

The closing of the Karni crossing, the main cargo opening between Israel and Gaza, threatens the supply of food and merchandise, although there have been stopgap shipments.

Using a crossing at Kerem Shalom, near the Egyptian border, Israel this week allowed the transfer of more than 840 tons of flour, meat and other foodstuffs, as well as 24,000 gallons of milk and 6,600 gallons of cooking oil. It also has kept up sales of fuel and maintained the supply of electricity and water.

Hamas leaders vow to take care of residents and have sought to assure them that stockpiles of essential goods are sufficient for months.

Few believe the world would abandon the coastal strip altogether.

But business owners fear the closures eventually will cut off supplies from Israel and the West Bank and block exports of Gaza produce. That could choke an economy already reeling from the international aid embargo imposed after Hamas won the elections.

"Hamas is taking 1.5 million people hostage," Nasser said.

The stock in the dairy cooler in Ahed Moshtaha's supermarket in Gaza City is running low and he's down to his last few cartons of cigarettes.

The store has plenty of sugar, cooking oil, detergent and crackers, but that provides little comfort in the face of what is now a deeply uncertain future.

"These days we sell and we don't buy," Moshtaha said. He pointed to a spiral notebook on the counter -- the list of sales made on credit. "We sell and we don't get any cash."

Moshtaha said he was glad to see Fatah ousted because of its reputation for corruption. But he is not happy about Gaza's new masters.

"I'm not Fatah and I'm not Hamas," he said. "But we are the ones who are always stuck between the two sides."

Asked about the future of Gaza, Moshtaha sighed heavily.

"It's a big grave," he said. "And we are living inside it."


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