Gaza street battles eclipse talks

Gazans suffered through the deadliest spate of factional violence since the Islamic militant group Hamas swept to power last January, as 25 Palestinians died in clashes over the past four days.

The current round of violence comes after Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshal failed to negotiate a deal last week in Damascus on a unity government.

But instead of serving as a catalyst to a new round of power-sharing talks, some observers are becoming convinced that the balance of power between the two political rivals is likely to be decided in the streets rather than the negotiating table.

"We are going from bad to worse. I'm not optimistic that the fighting will stop by this weekend. It will take a few weeks more," says Nashat Aqtash, a former media consultant to Hamas. "They are taking the long way, and are fighting to win. Winning means controlling the streets" or losing power altogether.

The recent upsurge started on Jan. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hamas's surprise trouncing of the secular Fatah Party in a parliamentary vote that gave the Islamic militants, which the US and Israel consider a terrorist organization, an unchallenged majority and exclusive control over Palestinian ministries.

The ongoing unrest in Gaza and the West Bank has already undermined efforts to mediate a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas, which has been holding Cpl. Gilad Shalit since June. And in the absence of any restored stability, the street battles will likely sap US efforts to strengthen Mr. Abbas, a moderate backer of negotiations, by creating a political "horizon" for peace negotiations with Israel.

But despite reconciliation efforts led by Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the street battles are believed to be dictated by strongmen like Mohammad Dahlan, the former head of the Preventative Security force and Said Siam, the Hamas Interior Minister who controls the recently established "Executive Force."

Some 50 Palestinians were injured in clashes last week that centered around the headquarters of military forces linked with the rival parties. Meanwhile, dozens of figures in both Hamas and Fatah have been kidnapped.

The tension has spilled over into the West Bank. In the city of Nablus Sunday, Fatah gunmen staged an on-camera kidnapping of a Hamas official at a branch of the Arab Islamic Bank, and a bodyguard of Hamas's deputy parliamentary speaker was also abducted.

A recent poll conducted by Nablus's A-Najah University indicated that 80 percent of Palestinians feel unsafe because of the violence. In the streets of Gaza, shops have remained closed and residents are making a conscious effort to stay indoors.

"They're using the violence to improve their negotiating position," says Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based political analyst. "They don't trust each other. In both groups there are people who aren't interested in a unity government."

Despite concern that the violence will descend into an all-out civil war, the turmoil has been kept in check by prominent Palestinian clans that, because they include members of both Hamas and Fatah, are able to calm tensions.

The latest round of violence has also prompted Hamas and Fatah to recast the intentions of one another as being guided by foreign influences that don't reflect the interests of the Palestinian people.

"There is a bloody stream in Hamas that insists on provoking the fights because they don't believe in political partnership, and they want to impose an external agenda on the Palestinians," says a Fatah spokesman in Gaza Maher Miqdat, alluding to Iran's influence on Hamas.

Pointing to American efforts to bolster Abbas and Israel's decision to release $100 million in back taxes to him, Hamas spokesmen have said they are fighting to insulate Palestinian society from the influence of Washington and Jerusalem.

"We are working on a project to establish a unity government that does not suit the Zionist American project," says Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesperson. "Our target is to protect the Palestinian people against this American agenda and to protect the national project."

Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza City contributed reporting for this article.

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