oPt + 1 more

OPT: As guns fall silent, Gazans fear isolation

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA, June 22 (Reuters) - As the guns of factional violence in Gaza have fallen silent, many Palestinians in the territory worry they are being abandoned by President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah group now bent on punishing their Islamist rivals.

A week of factional fighting and the subsequent sacking of the Hamas-led government by Abbas has led to a schism between the Palestinian territories, with the impoverished Gaza run by Hamas and the Israeli-occupied West Bank dominated by Fatah.

"It has been a very bad week for the Palestinian people. The Palestinian cause has never seen such a crisis," said Gaza physician Bassam Ismail of last week's rout by Islamist Hamas fighters of forces loyal to Abbas after six days of bloodshed.

A war of words has ensued between Hamas and Fatah, with each side calling the other traitors. Many of the 1.5 million Gazans feel they still need the Western-backed Abbas's influence, and worry that his break with Hamas will leave them isolated between Israel's fortified border and the Mediterranean Sea.

Israel has already tightened sanctions on Gaza and bars all contact with Hamas, a group that refuses to recognise the Jewish state. It has kept most Gaza crossings shut for the past week, and closely monitors world aid shipments to the coastal zone.

Simon Pluess of the U.N. World Food Programme warned in Geneva on Friday of a possible humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where aid groups say food stock could run out in two weeks.

"There are families who are starving to death, and there are sick people facing death," a preacher at a large Gaza mosque said in his weekly Friday sermon. "We call on President Mahmoud Abbas to work for the sake of public interest."

Some Palestinians have begun to fear that their dream of statehood in Gaza and the West Bank will never materialise as a result of internal warfare.

"Today a Palestinian state has been distanced by about another 1,000 years," Hussam, a local journalist, says.

Abbas says he does not want fellow Palestinians in Gaza to starve but has ruled out any dialogue with Hamas, which he had accused of staging a coup and trying to assassinate him.

Hamas leaders, too, are concerned not to suggest they want to isolate Gaza from the 2.5 million fellow Palestinians in the much larger West Bank.

"We do not want to establish an Islamic state in Gaza," senior official Khalil al-Haya told a news conference on Friday. "Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem are one unit. We will not accept that any of them should be separated".


Despite their worries, many Gazans say they feel safer than they had for months of skirmishes, now that one group has taken charge. Men, women and children feel freer to venture outside.

"Today we are assured of security and we are not afraid anymore," Abed al-Khalili, 55, leaving a mosque after weekly prayers, in a flowing robe.

Osama Ismail, a bearded engineer, said he was glad of the fighting's outcome. "It was a war between good and evil and Hamas was able to win and spread its control," he said.

"Security has prevailed because those in control of the territory now are men of God, they fear God, they are not killers and they are not criminals," he added.

Despite the calm, dozens of Palestinians of dual nationality fled the strip, fearing a future of economic deprivation and that the lifting of a Western economic embargo on Abbas's emergency government would not be felt in isolated Gaza.

More than 100 Russian, American and British citizens have left Gaza with their families in the past three days, many of whom shutting thriving businesses to do so.

"I am leaving my business behind and running for the well being of me and my family," said Mazen Ali as he crossed with his family into the corridor leading to the Israeli controlled Erez crossing this week.

Such migrations send a gloomy message to Gazans about the future, political analyst Hani Habib says.

"It increases their worry and fear regarding the future of this region by giving the impression Gaza is facing political and economic isolation," says Habib.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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