Gaza’s civilians have no place to hide.
With war raging in the streets between Hamas and Fatah loyalists, bullets, grenades and ceiling-piercing mortar shells are flying from all directions, battering homes, shops and schools.
“Anyone who says he is not scared is a liar,” Zaher Abdel Rahman, a computer technician whose sixth-floor apartment in downtown Gaza City has been hit by bullets and a mortar shell, said Sunday.
There’s no way to run. The Gaza Strip’s border is closed, locking 1.4 million Palestinians in a coastal territory just 27 miles long and 5 miles deep with food and other basics running short.
A fresh cease-fire was declared Sunday evening, but there was no indication it would be any more successful than previous truces in recent weeks of factional fighting.
Gazans have long been accustomed to violence. But until recently, combat was between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops, and the lines of battle were clear.
The last few weeks of fighting between Hamas and Fatah gunmen have taken on a different feel. Gunfire can erupt at any time, poorly trained fighters shoot at random, and the target isn’t always known.
'Crying... all the time'
Fighting has left parts of Gaza a moonscape of burned cars and wrecked buildings. Some of its best known institutions, including mosques and universities, have been heavily damaged from fires set by combatants or rockets punching holes in the walls.
Civilians are caught in the middle. Gunmen take up positions on the roofs of Gaza City’s high-rise apartment buildings, put up makeshift roadblocks in residential areas and harass anyone venturing outdoors when there is no shooting.
Residents are afraid to tell gunmen to leave their buildings, despite the danger they will attract fire. On Saturday, a Hamas radio station warned that the Islamic militant group’s men would attack any building where they spotted rival fighters. But they have not carried out the threat.
Even in areas without fighting, people are wary when they go outside. On Sunday, children walked down streets with their backs to walls to lessen the danger in case gunfire should break out.
Some residents liken their situation to the fighting that devastated Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s and ’80s.
“My wife was crying on Friday night all the time. I tried to comfort her. She looked at me and said, ’You are crying as well,”’ said Abdel Rahman, the computer technician, recounting a gunbattle outside their apartment building. “We were crawling just to get to the bathroom.”
His home is near the headquarters of the pro-Fatah Preventive Security force, site of some of the heaviest fighting. The family said the apartment building’s electricity had been cut off for three days, and a generator ran out of fuel.
Supplies running low
During lulls in fighting, Gazans run out to buy supplies to tide them over through the next round of battle. But many supermarkets are closed, and supplies of key items such as milk, bread and diapers have been running low.
Near the Preventive Security headquarters, people had to pass three Fatah roadblocks, and nearby a Hamas gunman told a motorist who slowed to look at damage: “Go ahead and drive. Otherwise, your car will look like this.”
The sides have been locked in a power struggle since Hamas defeated the long-ruling Fatah party in legislative elections a year ago.
The tensions have brought worsening violence. The bloodiest round erupted Thursday, with 28 people killed and more than 230 wounded in four days.
The Hamas-allied Islamic University was badly hit. Nearly all its nine buildings had extensive damage from rocket fire and blazes set by Fatah forces. Computers were looted, classrooms reduced to rubble and science laboratories destroyed.
Awni Abdel Kader, the university’s head librarian, said 3,000 reference books were destroyed, including religious works and rare books.
A few students and workers entered Sunday to inspect damage.
“God punish them,” one veiled student wailed as she left a building.
On Sunday, Hamas gunmen attacked bases of Fatah-allied troops with mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades before the announcement of yet another truce.
Forces pulled back, Hamas and Fatah officials conducted joint patrols and police replaced gunmen on rooftops. The rivals also began releasing hostages, officials said.
Meeting in Mecca
Previous truces have been short-lived, however, and Hamas accused Fatah of kidnapping one of its fighters after the cease-fire began.
Sunday’s truce began ahead of a planned meeting Tuesday between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Hamas’ exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, in Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was also expected to attend.
Abbas is pushing Hamas to join his party in a moderate coalition to get international sanctions lifted against the Hamas-led government.
Hamas has rejected international demands that it renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist, despite the economic sanctions that have caused widespread hardship and left it unable to pay tens of thousands of civil servants.