Gaza conflicts gain deadly momentum

Tuesday, Israeli missiles struck a van that Israel said was carrying militants.

Hours after the Israeli military announced Tuesday that it was not responsible for the deadly explosion on a Gaza beach Friday, two more Israeli army missiles struck a van near Gaza's Jabalya Refugee Camp Tuesday, killing 11 people, including two children and two paramedics who arrived after the first strike.

Israeli military officials say the car was carrying Islamic Jihad militants who were on the way to launch Kassam rockets into southern Israel, which has come under a shower of rockets in recent days.

The cross-border arms volley – as well as worsening strife among Palestinians – has gained a deadly momentum since late last week, setting up a dynamic that may put prospects for dialogue among all the parties further out of reach.

Late Monday night, Palestinians loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party set fire to the parliament building and other West Bank cabinet offices – many of them unused by Hamas cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, because most are barred by Israel from leaving Gaza. On the same night in Gaza, Hamas gunmen tried to storm a compound run by the Preventive Security Service, which is closely affiliated with Fatah.

Some Palestinians eyeing the spiraling violence blame Fatah, the mainstream faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), previously led by the late Yasser Arafat, for refusing to accept the ascent of Hamas.

"It never entered the mind of Fatah that they should accept the Hamas success in elections, so they will do whatever they want to topple the Hamas government," says Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political scientist at An-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus. "We have the additional, internal factor that the US and Israel are pressuring Fatah to topple Hamas," he charges. "Every day, Fatah is doing something to create chaos in the street, so things will deteriorate as long as Hamas is in power. Israel, the US, and also Fatah have an interest in that."

Of course, it is Hamas – not Fatah – that is lobbing Kassam rockets over the border, something Israeli leaders hoped would be less justifiable once Israel pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza, as it did last August. Since the beach attack Friday, which killed seven members of the Ghaliya family, more than 80 Palestinian rockets have fallen on Israel, causing two serious injuries.

After an investigation, the Israel army said Friday's bloodshed was not the result of a misfired shell, as previously reported, but of explosives laid by Hamas with the intention of attacking the Israeli navy, which patrols the coast. Palestinian officials said such an explanation was highly unlikely.

Who is actually at fault may never be entirely clear, and may matter little now: Palestinians blame Israel and say their "farms have been turned into graveyards" in the words of Ghassan Ghabil, who sat at the mourning tent for his uncle and cousins killed in Friday's bloodshed on the beach.

Israelis lay responsibility at the feet of Hamas and other like-minded militants, who have stepped up rocket attacks nearly a year since the disengagement plan was carried out. Hamas has declared its cease-fire with Israel over, but Hamas spokesmen declined to say what that might mean, insisting that such questions are in the realm of the organization's military wing, the Izz ed-Din al Qassam Brigades.

On Monday, Palestinian parliament members began their session as usual – divided. They sat half in Gaza, half in the West Bank, patched together by videocameras that broadcast with a strange, jumpy lag that makes it seem as if the other territory may as well be thousands of miles away.

But the division that doesn't feel business-as-usual is the yawning ideological divide, separating Palestinians who support forging a two-state solution with Israel from Palestinians who see no chance of permanent peace with the Jewish state.

Moreover, there has been a decline in the usual respect between what, in Palestinian terms, could be considered "both sides of the aisle" – Fatah and Hamas.

Hamas, which holds 74 seats of the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), had called an emergency meeting to pass a law to try to prevent Fatah's Abbas from holding a referendum, which he announced by presidential decree over the weekend.

Angered by this affront to the president's authority, Fatah legislators staged a walkout from the meeting. "Fatah withdrew from the session because this is an illegal meeting," says Ashraf Juma, a PLC member who was pursued by reporters on the plaza outside Gaza parliamentary meeting hall. "The parliament has no right to discuss the referendum and try to ban it. Today's session means they are confusing executive and legislative powers."

Mr. Juma says that despite the difficulties, Abbas will succeed in his plans to hold the referendum on July 26. The referendum is meant to gauge Palestinian support for the prisoners' document, which some people say implies support for a two-state solution. Prisoners from Hamas and Islamic Jihad say Abbas has extrapolated too much, and have withdrawn their names from the document.

"There is a determination by President Abbas to go ahead with the referendum," says Juma, "and we know from experience that if he wants something to happen on time, as he did with the elections, it will happen."

Analysts say that it isn't really the meaning of the prisoners' document – or even the question of whether Palestinians support a two-state solution with Israel – that is most at stake. Some observers say Abbas would use the results of the referendum to declare that most Palestinians support a return to peacemaking with Israel. Afterwards, Abbas could dismiss the government and call new elections.

After the Fatah walkout, Hamas legislators decided to postpone the vote until June 20 in order to give compromise talks – what Palestinians call the "national dialogue" – more time. But amid daily gun battles, a short-lived spate of kidnappings, and the protest resignation Tuesday of the single Christian government minister in the Hamas-led government, the sounds of dialogue are becoming harder to hear.

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