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Political Violence in Gaza Sparks Fears of Civil War

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Money isn't the only problem facing Palestinians. Some also fear that fighting between two factions could generate open civil war. It's a conflict between Fatah, the party of President Mahmoud Abbas, which used to run the government; and Hamas, which controls it now.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Over the weekend, NPR's Eric Westervelt witnessed the violence in the Gaza Strip.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Angry Fatah loyalists burning tires, shouting, yelling. And now more police are arriving. Looks like Fatah men.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

INSKEEP: That was the sound last weekend. Eric is back with us today. And has there been more trouble today, Eric?

WESTERVELT: There has. Hamas sources say gunmen from one branch of Fatah kidnapped, pistol-whipped, and then shot three Hamas militants - killing one of them. The three were abducted as they left a mosque this morning, after prayers. And their badly injured bodies were dumped at a gas station. Two of them are expected to survive.

This is just the latest, Steve, in a series of violent confrontations between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza, over the last six days. We've seen running gun battles, as we've just heard. There've been at least two assassination attempts on senior Fatah officials. So, despite some high-level people on both sides saying that they're in contact and working to calm tensions, gunmen on the street you talk to, and many local residents, are certainly on edge. And violence can seem to flare up at any time.

INSKEEP: Would you describe the landscape please? Is this all happening in crowded residential areas?

WESTERVELT: It is, especially in Gaza City. This is a tightly packed urban area. Cement apartment buildings are mixed in with small shops, and some government buildings and schools. I mean, the shootout at the Palestinian Parliament Building, on Monday, had a lot of school children, you know, walking back from class. And it's just amazing more weren't injured, given the amount of gunfire that was going on, over about two-and-a-half, three hours.

INSKEEP: Is this just a conflict about which security forces control the streets?

WESTERVELT: That's been the flashpoint, Steve. But it runs a lot deeper. Fatah, you know, is a more secular group. Its leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas, advocate peace talks with Israel, and they recognize the Jewish state's right to exist. But the Islamists of Hamas want to put their religious imprint on the political, legal, and social life of many Palestinians. Hamas doesn't recognize Israel, as we know, and continues to advocate violence for what it calls Islamic resistance to Israel.

Although we should note, Hamas hasn't carried out any suicide bombings in more than a year. Adding to the tension, Steve, Fatah is now a pretty divided movement. And many factions, so far, have been unwilling to relinquish power in key ministries in Gaza and the West Bank since the January elections, in which they lost.

INSKEEP: These factions have a meeting coming up over the next couple of days, and I suppose it's worth wondering whether they'll be talking about a settlement with Israel or some kind of settlement with each other.

WESTERVELT: Well, that's right. They were called National Unity Dialogue Talks, and they were expected to focus on the conflict with Israel and the isolation of the new Hamas-led government. But with violent, near-daily street clashes in Gaza, you know, basic issues of power sharing are sure to be a major focus.

INSKEEP: Okay, Eric. Thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Eric Westervelt
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.