Gaza melts down

With Hamas and Fatah forces shooting at each other, Gaza stands on the edge of civil war. A report from the streets.

Published May 24, 2006 12:14PM (EDT)

I started calling it a civil war when the family of a slain bodyguard took over the lobby of my hotel -- one of the nicest seaside hotels in the world, let alone in a place like Gaza City -- and began firing at the Hamas gunmen across the street.

On Saturday, someone tried to blow up Tariq Abu Rajab, the head of Palestinian Military Intelligence. Rajab's bodyguard, Ali Abou al-Hassira, died when the elevator he and his boss, a senior member of Fatah and a longtime Hamas enemy, were entering suddenly exploded. Eleven other people were wounded. Somehow, someone was able to place a nice big bomb loaded with ball bearings in an elevator in the headquarters of Palestinian Military Intelligence. Nobody even tried to blame the Israelis this time. The street's verdict: This was Hamas all the way.

The badly wounded Rajab had to be evacuated to a hospital in Israel. And the Hassira family held the normal Gaza funeral, marching around with the body and firing AK-47s in the air. The newly installed Hamas security force wisely cleared the streets around the area to avoid a confrontation. Like many Fatah supporters, the al-Hassira clan hates Hamas, and they compared the new force in the streets to their archenemy.

"This is the result of occupation," Abu Muhammad al-Hassira yelled at me as the body entered the mosque. He waved his hands for emphasis. "First the Israelis and now we have Hamas!" and then he spit on the ground before entering the mosque to pray.

I was in my room filing pictures of Hassira's funeral when the gunshots began. The family lives near my hotel, and so when I heard the shooting, I wasn't concerned: I could tell it was just mourners firing into the air. Then out my window I saw all the local kids running for their lives and the unmistakable sound of AK-47s being fired from inside the building. This was a new wrinkle. I crept down the stairs with my cameras.

It was chaos. A 12-year-old boy was walking around aimlessly with a bullet hole in his neck. Blood was flying everywhere. The outdoor hallway that separates the restaurant and hotel had bullet casings skidding down it and the area was filled with Hassira family members either appealing for calm or shooting at Hamas gunmen, who had reappeared after the funeral across the street. And the Hamas gunmen were counterattacking and coming closer and closer to the hotel.

But I knew none of this at the time. People think journalists who cover conflicts just coolly drop into gun battles and figure them out as we go. We don't. We like to know in advance that Team A is over there and Team B is over here. There are some simple rules. Don't get between them, make sure whatever side you're covering it from knows you're there and is OK with your presence. Once you have all that set up then keep low, do your work and don't overstay your welcome. And make sure the side you're working isn't about to lose badly. If they do, run like hell.

But in this case, I wasn't a journalist. I was just some dude in a close-quarters automatic weapons gunfight and no idea. Bullets flying around, black-shirted gunmen counterattacking and pools of blood on the floor of my hotel lobby -- that's not journalism, it's getting shot at. So I bolted, dodging the still unexplained bullets, and had the situation explained to me later. Three wounded and the kid with the neck wound lived.

That wasn't even the closest call I had that day.

A few hours before, just after the bomb, I ran to the hospital. In the Middle East, after a major violent event you have to count the dead and wounded, since official statements tend to over- or understate things in the short term, depending on how it suits them. Only in the hospital or morgue can you find the truth.

A little background here: Palestinians are the easiest people in the world to cover as a journalist. They respect the work, know journalists take risks to tell their story, and, frankly, know that stories of their suffering under Israeli oppression are good P.R. But it's not just cynical and calculating; they're Arabs and that stuff about Arabs' respect for guests is very real and sincere.

Having said that, a lot of the goodwill toward the foreign journo dries up when it's Arabs fighting each other. Suddenly, you're not documenting a noble struggle against occupation, you're just some foreigner. And if you're in a hospital full of pissed-off Military Intelligence officials tending to their wounded, it's a disaster. As I tried to take pictures, I was suddenly surrounded by a mob of armed men grabbing at my cameras. Luckily, the son of a wounded official jumped into the fray and dragged me to a side room. Once he checked my digital images, he informed the angry crowd I had done nothing wrong and I was free to take pictures outside the hospital.

One frame later, I was chased off the hospital grounds by a half-dozen armed, screaming men. A local photographer -- one smart enough to not even take his cameras out of his car -- yanked me to safety.

"You know they'd kill me for saying this, but I miss the Israelis," one droll local journalist told me after we watched the men beat another photographer and destroy his gear. "Sure they occupied us, but there were fucking rules, man. 'Go here and we'll shoot you. Stand there and you're cool.' We could work. We could live. Now we have this shit."

The face-off between Hamas and Fatah was the culmination of tensions that had been rising since Hamas' stunning electoral victory on Jan. 25, which dealt the Palestinian Authority (P.A.), its president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Fatah, which is associated with both Abbas and Yasser Arafat's PLO, a historic defeat. There are dozens of poorly organized Fatah factions, some little more than armed gangs under the control of warlords, which were bitterly hostile to Hamas. The new Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniya, part of the newly elected Hamas government, decided that the Fatah militiamen were as much a threat as the Israelis, and called up a pretty impressive Hamas force to restore order.

Mahmoud, known as Abu Mazen, called the Hamas deployment illegal, but Haniya refused to back down. Abu Mazen might hold some sway in the West Bank, and seems like a nice man who sincerely wants to help his people, but in Gaza he's got no power compared to the Fatah warlords. As for the P.A. police, they're just cops -- they aren't very powerful and they don't want to get involved in a Palestinian civil war. So Abu Mazen's cries for talks and stepping down the militias barely registered and were never discussed.

The upshot: Thousands of irregular troops loyal to Hamas confronted the dozens of different Fatah factions that were roaming the streets. Occasional small shootouts took place. Gaza was on the brink of exploding.

Then the only thing that could refocus the building hatred happened. The Israelis saw Gaza on the brink of all-out war and decided to bomb it.

It was a targeted assassination of a top Islamic Jihad militant in charge of shooting half-assed-looking rockets out of Gaza into neighboring farms in what appears to be a symbolic jihad on Israeli lettuce production. The Israelis killed the militant, but since they used a big, guided bomb from an F-16 fighter jet, they also killed a mother, a grandmother and a 4-year-old girl who were stuck in traffic near the homemade missile mastermind's SUV. So now the journalists were back in good graces and the next day a huge funeral procession marched down the streets denouncing the Palestinian people's actual enemy.

Muslim tradition dictates that a body is taken first back to its home, then to a mosque, then to burial. So as hundreds of gunmen from all factions stormed the streets wielding the shrouded bodies wrapped in Palestinian flags and shooting guns in the air, everyone paused in the unfinished basement of a house owned by the family of the three civilian victims. The bodies were laid out and relatives mourned.

But even amid this horrible and touching scene, the chuckleheads that dominated the week in Gaza managed to prevail again. A guy fired his AK-47 in the air in grief. Indoors. In a cinderblock basement. I didn't jump when the gun fired, but I did when I heard the wet thump of the bullet hitting the mourner next to me. Right in the head.

His friends immediately picked him up and carried his limp body away while chanting, "God is great, God is great" and sped him to the hospital. And the funeral then proceeded to the mosque. The incident wasn't reported. Other than the guys who carried the victim, I seemed to be the only one who registered the event. I asked four other journalists if they had even seen it but they only remembered seeing the group of guys carrying a limp kid out of the basement. Oh, they heard the gunshot but amid the hundreds that afternoon, they forgot to notice it was indoors.

But by the next day, the gunfights started back up.

Say what you will about Hamas, their call for the destruction of Israel, their tendency to send suicide bombers to kill Israeli civilians and their ghetto rocket program. But they have more or less -- outside the mostly ineffectual rockets -- honored a cease-fire for over a year. Honesty should count for something, and anyone who doesn't think all the Fatah guys aren't also hoping to get the chance to push the Israelis into the sea is dreaming. And this kind of honesty translates into governance. Hamas was elected primarily because they're semi-competent technocrats who give the impression that they'll steal a hell of a lot less and do a hell of a lot more for the average Palestinian than Fatah. Both groups want to destroy Israel, or at the very least use violence as a tactic for negotiations. Hamas just comes right out and says so -- although its leaders have also promised a long-term cease-fire if Israel would return to its June 1967 borders. And it also seems willing to actually govern in the meantime.

And the Palestinians' reward for throwing out a bunch of corrupt hoodlums in favor of a more honest bunch? The U.S., Israel and the E.U. cut off aid or block earned tax revenue and now the public sector of Gaza -- or about 70 percent of the workforce -- hasn't been paid for months. And this was one of the poorest and most densely populated parts of the world to begin with.

So everyone is cranky. The streets were filled with unpaid, heavily armed volunteers, which left everyone massively on edge all week. And after a day of rest for the funeral for the innocent victims of the Israeli attack, Fatah and Hamas went at it full bore.

All week people had been getting wounded from drive-by shootings, short bursts of fire here or there, and usually it was Hamas guys getting hit. One Hamas gunman told me, "Fatah is trying to get us to shoot back. They want to fight us but can't be seen as the ones who started it. So they pick and pick at us to try and get us to shoot back. But we are Hamas."

My friend Abu Taha explained it. "Who wants the history book to read 'Fatah founded the Palestinian movement but then lost an election and started the Gaza civil war,'" he says. "But the good thing about Hamas is the bad thing as well. If their leaders tell them to stand there and let people shoot them, they will. But if their leaders tell them to kill everyone in the street, they'll do that too."

No one knows how the battle at the Parliament started. But when I got there, Hamas was in full battle mode. It was remarkable. This was a militia that no one knew existed until a week before. Hamas has always had fighters, but they have been an elite few who remained anonymous to avoid Israeli reprisals. This was the first week they'd deployed men in the thousands with their faces uncovered. They were well equipped, with new guns. (When I was last in Gaza, for Arafat's funeral in 2004, the going price for an AK-47 was $3,000. A few months ago it had dropped to $500, no doubt because smuggled guns are pouring in through Rafah on the Egyptian border. Now, with the rise of hostilities, demand is outpacing supply and the cost is up to $800.) These kids seemed to know what they were doing. They were definitely better than the Iraqi army. And their black masks were back on.

There were bullets flying everywhere. My driver Khalil and I were just looking for a place we could get out, talk to people and try to get a grip on Team A and Team B's locations. But they were everywhere and nowhere at once. We devised a rule: Guys with masks, burning tires, screaming and waving guns at us were unavailable for comment and meant we should keep driving. But then I found a side street and some Hamas fighters.

"No pictures of faces," one street commander told me in Arabic before allowing me to run with his men as they fought. Khalil seemed pleased that I asked him to stay with the car.

Their job was to hold a corner using a wall as cover. Across the street, their buddies had positions in an abandoned building and the cultural center that allowed them to shoot down the T-shaped intersection toward a Fatah position. If we quickly looked around that corner we could see the Fatah guys 50 to 100 yards away, but we knew they were there from the fire coming up the road at us. There was no real need to look, and that wall made nice cover. Plus the Hamas guys opposite us who had a clear shot down the road let us know what was going on with their bursts of fire. Hamas guys shoot less and aim more than Fatah militiamen. We didn't see the rocket-propelled grenade or know who fired it, but we heard it roar down the road and hit the police station.

As we crouched listening to bullets bounce down the road in front of us and hit the wall to our right, the guy next to me started muttering, "La ilaha illah Allah." There is no God but God. Over the next few minutes, all four men began saying it slowly and in tandem. A sign of devotion but also a soothing mantra and I found myself quietly joining in. Chances are the Fatah guys down the street were saying it too.

The official count Monday was 11 wounded and one dead. The driver of the Jordanian ambassador took a wrong turn and was killed.

And from what I can tell, the new Palestinian civil war is barely being reported. Last night the top hotels that journalists use in Gaza, even the ones never used as firing positions, remain empty. Now that the Israelis have left, it seems to be a story no one is interested in. Only the local stringers risk their lives for it. They cover it every day, often under conditions like the ones I just described, and never get to just walk out of Gaza and go somewhere safe, like I did this afternoon.

By Mitchell Prothero

Mitchell Prothero is a freelance journalist in Iraq.

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