By Joshua Mitnick | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
Tel Aviv - As deadly clashes between rival factions Fatah and Hamas escalated for a fourth day on Wednesday, Palestinians in Gaza seemed to have returned to the brink of all-out internecine war that threatens to draw Israeli forces back into the troubled coastal strip of land.
In response to a series of bold Hamas offensives that killed more than 13 people, President Mahmoud Abbas was reportedly mulling declaring a state of emergency in the West Bank and Gaza.
With Gaza largely shut down except for the fighting, Islamic militants fired missiles at the home of a top Fatah security chief, killing several bodyguards.
The latest fighting between the rival militias - so far about three dozen Palestinians have been killed this week - has wrecked a Hamas-Fatah truce reached in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in February and exposed the parties' "unity" government as ineffectual, say analysts.
"The government is completely toothless," says Ghassan Khatib, a former cabinet minister under Mr. Abbas. "This is a round that will take some time, probably a couple of weeks. It will continue until Gaza will be in a different political context."
Meanwhile, in the first air strike after months of an informal cease-fire, an Israeli helicopter shot missiles at a Hamas training base in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, killing at least four. The strike was retaliation for rocket salvos that left several injured and many houses damaged in the southern Israel town of Sderot.
Israel mulls sending in troops
With Sderot residents in bomb shelters and demanding to be evacuated, the pressure has been ratcheted up on the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to order a broad offensive in Gaza - a move that many in Israel see as inevitable.
"Israel won't tolerate attacks on its citizens," said Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz in a statement. "Israel will not be a party to an internal Palestinian power struggle. We will respond visibly."
Hamas's cross-border rocket salvos were interpreted in Israel as a ploy to tempt the army to order troops into Gaza, which would focus the warring Palestinian militias' attention on a common enemy.
Gazan schools and businesses were closed as residents stayed indoors to keep out of the crossfire and avoid random roadblocks. And after a series of Egyptian-mediated truces between Hamas and Fatah were announced and immediately broken, many locals expect a new escalation of the fighting.
"Palestinian people feel that the acts of Gaza are a form of betrayal, to the noble cause, and are only bringing shame and dishonor upon all the people," read an editorial from the Jerusalem-based Al Quds newspaper.
The piece compared the Gaza calamity to Palestinian displacement during Israel's 1948 War of Independence. "With their acts, [the militants] are actually renewing the disasters of 1948, leaving all Palestinians inside the homeland and outside crying and demoralized."
Whether turmoil or calm reigns in the streets of Gaza is now in the hands of Hamas's military wing as well as independent militias, say analysts. Palestinian Authority officials like Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, have little ability to control the gunmen, they say.
Gaza has been weakened by an international economic boycott of the Hamas government, while Israel has further crippled the territory by limiting passage of civilians and commercial goods at Gaza's crossings.
Azzam al-Ahmad, a Fatah leader and deputy prime minister, said he expects Abbas to declare a state of emergency to end the violence.
"We need this state of emergency," al-Ahmad told reporters in Ramallah. He also called for dismantling Hamas's Executive Force, accusing it of supporting the military wing of Hamas in its raids against pro-Abbas forces.
Independent militias fill the void
Several groups have an interest in prolonging the violence, says Mr. Khatib.
Hamas's Damascus-based political leadership claims that Abbas and the Palestinian Liberation Organization have avoided implementing a commitment under the Mecca agreement to give the Islamic militants powers within the Fatah-dominated PLO umbrella group.
Independent militias linked to prominent Gaza families have moved into the security vacuum left by the Palestinian Authority, and also profit from the continued fighting.
Meanwhile, Hamas's military wing wants to consolidate its control in Gaza, where it is militarily superior but remains wary of efforts by the US and Israel to prop up forces loyal to Abbas.
"There are many people still in the security apparatus cooperating with the Americans and the Israelis," says Ahmed Yousef, a political adviser to Prime Minister Haniyeh of Hamas. "They are benefiting from the lack of law and order and the clashes and all these things. People in our community know exactly who they are. That's why you see many people targeting specific houses."
US-backed force under attack
On Tuesday, a Hamas ambush killed at least seven members of Abbas' Presidential Guard at a commercial crossing to Israel. They were charged with guarding the crossing under a US-sponsored plan to bolster forces loyal to Abbas, who supports peace negotiations with Israel.
Analysts say the Hamas strike is a signal that the US policy of intervention is contributing to the instability in Gaza. And with Presidential Guard reinforcements scheduled to arrive in Gaza from Egypt, analysts warn that it could only fuel the fire of the internal clashes.
"It's going to be accompanied by an escalation in armed clashes," says Yossi Alpher, the coeditor of Bitterlemons.org, an online journal dedicated to analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "And it is not at all clear whether the Presidential Guard will succeed."
Safwat al-Kahlout contributed to this report from Gaza.