Life in the Gaza Strip

After two weeks of Hamas, a tense quiet in Gaza.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Over and over again, one song is heard:  

Hamsawi ma yihab il-mot. 

It trails from radios everywhere, on the only station in Gaza. 

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Hamsawi kermal id-din. 

"A Hamas fighter is not afraid of death. A Hamas fighter is for the sake of religion!"

Catchy, high-stepping, and jingoistic, it is the tune that plays all day long on Hamas's Al Aqsa Radio, the only one that remains standing after the turbulent ousting of its Palestinian rival Fatah earlier this month. From the airwaves to the imams' sermons, the message here is one of self-congratulation: for routing corrupt officials, for bringing a feeling of calm after months of internecine gun battles.

But closer to the ground, unofficial channels convey a deep sense of uncertainty. Some say they're relieved that the internal fighting over, while many others express a fear for the future – especially when the local storekeeper suddenly stops selling them food on credit, and when Israeli jets thunder overhead.

Gazans saw more bloodshed Wednesday, following Israeli army incursions near the Gaza-Israel border. Palestinian officials say that the clashes left 13 dead. According to hospital officials another 40 people were wounded by Israeli shells in Gaza City.

'So where do you want me to go?'

For many here, like Ahmad Shalayal, the future feels amorphous. Mr. Shalayal used to have a job with the Palestinian police. Now, he sits at home most days, waiting to see what will happen, and trying to figure out how to support his wife and five children.

"I work for the Palestinian police, but the orders from President [Mahmoud] Abbas were to stay home," he explains. "I still take orders from him, because he will pay me my salary. I am stuck between the salary of Abbas and the orders of Hamas. If they don't sit together and solve the problems, we will die from the suffering."

On a trip to his local supermarket, Shalayal finds the owner and his friends discussing the latest news.

"Come on," argues Ibrahim, who gives only his first name, "don't you see how we feel safe and secure after we got rid of those corrupt guys?"

"And what about the food?" responds Samir, who also gives only one name. "Is this what Hamas wants? To starve people?"

"It's true," nods Imad Al-Tanna, the owner. "This supermarket is going to empty out soon. Tell Hamas to manage to open the Karni crossing [with Israel] and bring me goods to sell."

Shalayal stands at the counter, and, when there's a lull in the political debate, asks for a bag of rice and some cooking oil. Mr. Tanna frowns and shakes his head.

"No more buying on credit," he says to Shalayal. Then Tanna opens up his notebook where he keeps a register of credit purchases. "I'm sorry. Give me something of what you owe me, and then we can open a new page."

Embarrassed, Shayalal snaps back. "So where do you want me to go? Should I ask Abbas to send me some money? Maybe Haniyeh?"

Despite Wednesday's violence, Gaza these days can sometimes feel calmer than normal. The shooting between Fatah and Hamas militants has ended. Residents are enjoying visiting large swaths of beachfront that had once been closed off taken over and "privatized" by Fatah kingpins. Some people are returning to work, while students take their makeup exams.

And yet, there has been a sea change here, and many people are still trying to decide which is more troubling: a Gaza Strip wracked not just by Israeli versus Palestinian violence but also Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence, as it was before, or a Gaza under the thumb of Hamas.

Abu Suhayid, a policeman who alternates between untangling traffic jams outside police headquarters and sitting at his guard post reading the Koran, brags that Hamas's ascendency is already bringing stability. There's no imposition of strict sharia law, but subtle changes are evident.

A man his in mid-20s who sports a full beard – unseen on Palestinian policemen in the past but rapidly becoming part of the uniform – says he's also traded in his all-black militants' attire for the blue uniform that Hamas superiors issued him.

"We are here to protect our people. Abbas used to say that we're the 'black militias,' but we are much purer than them," he says. "We haven't killed any of our people. We killed only the corrupt people who hole the peoples' resources and put them in their own bank accounts."

Seeing a reporter, a small group of civilians gather to eavesdrop. One of them shakes his head and interrupts.

"Yeah, but you killed innocent people," charges the young man, yelling at Mr. Suhayid. "People who had nothing to do with Fatah or Hamas." The rest of the crowd looks at him with surprise, but Suhayid brushes it off with a smile and a religious benediction.

"God bless them," he says. "They were not targets, but they were stuck in the crossfire. God keep them," he repeats, in an oft-said praise for the departed, referring to the afterlife.

For Fatah, different routes out of Gaza

In this life, however, some Palestinians don't find this attitude acceptable. That's why Raed Shami, who lives on the seventh floor of one of the higher-quality high-rise buildings in the newer Tel il-Hawa neighborhood, is busy moving out. He and his brothers are helping him salvage what furniture and appliances they can from their apartment, where bullets ricocheted around the room for days as he cowered on the floor with his wife and children.

"We spent 48 hours lying on the ground, hoping we'd be safe, and I almost got shot. Now we're moving somewhere safer," he says, watching his refrigerator and washing machine being lifted into a small truck.

"I am pessimistic now. I think that these clashes might take place again at anytime." Mr. Shami says. "One day soon someone will restart this, and they don't care about us, they care about their own agendas."

In this sea of uncertainty, people who were affiliated with Fatah are taking several different approaches. Some are trying to get to the West Bank, to join others who escaped to there, though Israel has kept the borders closed. Some are declaring themselves breakaway factions of Fatah, such as Abu Hillal, who invited all of the media last week to a press conference to say that he was establishing the Al Yasser wing of Fatah. Many from both Fatah and Hamas insist that the fight was not about factional fighting, but a revolt against Fatah security czar Mohammed Dahlan.

Others are simply staying home, for fear that there will be more "purges" of Fatah people. Abu Mahmoud, who worked for the preventive security force that was headed by Mr. Dahlan, says that he doesn't believe Hamas's promises that it won't persecute anyone else from Fatah.

"I wish I had gotten out to the West Bank," Mr. Mahmoud says. He spends most of his time on the phone with his friends there, getting updates from them.

"Despite this Hamas pardon, I don't trust them. They might come anytime for their revenge. I thought of escaping even now to Ramallah, but how can I do that and leave my family here?" he says, pointing to his children playing in the street.

At prayer services, however, a different message is heard. Whether or not one attends the central Abu Hadra mosque, the speech permeates the air over Gaza City, blasting over loudspeakers. Here, Ahmed Bahar, who is known as the speaker of the Palestinian parliament – the same one that was dissolved by Abbas after the coup and replaced by an emergency government – occasionally serves at imam. He uses the pulpit to lob criticism at the summit this week in Sharm el-Sheikh,  Egypt in which Abbas and Israeli leader Ehud Olmert vowed to move the peace process forward.

"Abbas is ready to meet with the enemy who is killing our people," intones Mr. Bahar, "but he doesn't have time to meet his brothers."

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