Palestinian factions battle as outlook for peace grows Fundamentalists oppose negotiations

ISRAELI-OCCUPIED GAZA STRIP — ISRAELI-OCCUPIED GAZA STRIP -- Palestinians have turned violently on themselves, fighting for the spoils of a peace not yet arrived.

The warren of shantytown tin-and-cement homes in the Gaza Strip has become a stalking ground for gangs armed with clubs, guns and axes, hunting their political rivals.


Attempts by Palestinian leaders to stop the fighting have taken only partial hold. One leader likened the situation to "a civil war."

The factional fighting in the Gaza Strip has been fueled by the election of a new Israeli government and could threaten the prospects for self-rule by Palestinians.


"We have to stop the fighting so the peace process goes on," said Ali Yaghi, sitting in the impoverished refugee camp of Jabaliya.

Critics of Israel's new prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, point to the fighting as further proof that his plan to give autonomy to the West Bank and Gaza Strip would result in chaos.

Estimates of the number hurt in fighting since Israel's June 23 election vary widely. At least one person has been killed and more than 150 injured, although some accounts put both numbers higher.

"It has burned all over the Gaza Strip, from north to south," said Tawfiq Mabhouh, one of those trying to negotiate an end to the battles.

The Palestinian factions here have long carried on a grudging and sometimes bloody feud. It is based on political differences and enflamed by petty arguments that are nurtured in the poverty of the Gaza Strip.

A military spokesman said this fighting is worse than it has ever been. It is "unique in its breadth and intensity," said the spokesman.

More than 750,000 people are packed onto the narrow, beachside Gaza Strip, 20 miles south of Tel Aviv. The eight refugee camps here are places of desperate poverty, where donkey carts ply dusty roads and children play in raw sewage.

On one side of the conflict is Fatah, the main branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is a main player in the -- Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.


On the other is Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group that has opposed the negotiations as a sellout.

Talat Mustafa got caught in the middle. The cement-truck driver stopped to have breakfast with his friend Hamad Yusif in a Fatah neighborhood of Gaza last week. While they were eating, a group of Hamas supporters attacked them with clubs and a knife.

"I couldn't do anything. They were all around me," he said. "I tried to cover my head with my arm, and they broke my arm. I grabbed a knife with my hand, and when they pulled it away it cut my hand.

"We fell to the ground. They were going to kill us." He added with a weak smile, "It was a memorable breakfast."

Each side blames the other for the conflict. Fatah supporters contend Hamas wants to disrupt the peace process. If a peace agreement is forged with Fatah, Hamas might be left out of the Palestinian institutions that are set up to replace the Israeli authority.

"They are outside the peace process. They fear they are left behind," said Khalid Ali, a friend of Mr. Mustafa's.


"When they found out Rabin had won and will implement an autonomy plan, they knew they were going to be out of it."

Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, a physician at Islamic University in Gaza, denies that the Hamas group began the fighting. He said the conflict was instigated by Fatah in a conspiracy to blame Hamas.

"We are against violence," he said. "The lesson of the Koran is clear: You cannot kill a fellow Muslim. But you must be able to defend yourself."

He said Fatah plotters planned to assassinate their rivals in Hamas. Leaflets distributed in the Gaza Strip have carried on a bloodcurdling correspondence.

One distributed last week named Dr. Zahar and warned that "the bullets of Fatah shall embrace your forehead."

In reply, he said, Hamas activists sent letters to Fatah warning that anyone involved in such an assassination would be killed.


"We are dead-sure about the conspiracy," Dr. Zahar said.

It is difficult to be dead-sure about much in the Gaza Strip, including exactly who is fighting. Rami Zachari Mazloum, 20, was marching with a Hamas group in Gaza last week when other men in Arab dress approached.

The Hamas marchers thought they were being attacked by Fatah and fought back, according to several of those involved. The strangers, however, belonged to an undercover group of the Israeli army and pulled weapons from under their Arab-style clothing.

Raed Mazloum said he saw his brother being wounded and dragged off by the soldiers.

"He was bleeding, but he was alive. Later they found three empty shells beside his body. They shot him," contends the brother.

A spokesman for the army initially said Rami Mazloum "was beaten to death by local [Arab] people probably because he was wrongly identified" as Fatah.


His family said an autopsy has proved he died of a bullet wound, and the army spokesman acknowledged Friday that an investigation has begun and "the results will be passed on to the Military Judge Advocate General."

"They wanted to assassinate him because he was one of the activists in the Islamic Resistance Movement. He was targeted," said the dead man's father, Abu Maed Mazloum, as he grieved beneath a condolence tent festooned with Hamas banners.

"The Israeli assassination groups want to create further disputes between Hamas and Fatah," he said. "They can operate, and it makes it look like we are murderers."

Others say the Israeli army, which patrols the Gaza Strip, has looked the other way during skirmishes.

"If there's a case of shooting, they will show up one or two hours later," said Mr. Mabhouh, who is not associated with either faction. "The Israelis say, 'Let them burn themselves.' "

Lt. Col. Moshe Fogle said army officers are under orders to intervene, but "at a time and such a way of their choosing, so as not to make the situation worse."


"There have been times when we waited a little while because if we sent a force in, there would be casualties," he said.

The factional fighting has not spread to the West Bank. Leaders of Fatah and Hamas have met repeatedly in the past two weeks to try to arrange a truce in the Gaza Strip. Each declaration of a cease-fire was quickly broken by new skirmishes.

Tuesday, they announced a comprehensive agreement had been reached, and Palestinian committees were set up to oversee its implementation.

But a day later, gunmen shot up the house of a Hamas supporter involved in the negotiations, Dr. Salah al- Rantissi. And Thursday, new fighting reportedly involving 1,000 Palestinians broke out near the town of Rafa in the south Gaza Strip. Twelve people were shot by both Fatah and Hamas supporters.

Ali Yaghi, in Jabaliya, said he hopes these are isolated violations of the truce. The alternative is frightening, he said.

"If it starts again, it will be very dangerous," he said. "There will be bloodshed. Maybe there will be civil war."