Is a Palestinian Civil War Looming?

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Just a week ago, the main Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas, were talking about forging a national unity government. Now, their supporters are fighting each other in running street battles in the West Bank and Gaza, in what may be the opening salvos in a Palestinian civil war.

How did relations among the Palestinians get so bad, so fast?

Anger has been steadily rising in recent weeks between Fatah gunmen loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas militants backing Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh. Both sides were anxious to work out a formula that would end Western sanctions, which had choked off foreign aid and tax money to the struggling Palestinian Authority and prevented the payment of salaries to 160,000 government workers over the past five months. The embargo had been imposed after Hamas, which won the January elections, took office in March. Israel, the U.S. and Europe all consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and made ending the financial blockade conditional on Hamas recognizing Israel and previous peace agreements, and renouncing violence.

On a trip to Washington last month, Abbas made the spectacular claim that Hamas — sworn by its charter to destroy Israel — had agreed to recognize the Jewish State. Abbas had hardly spoken the words before they were denied by a Hamas spokesman. A furious Abbas accused the Islamists of reneging on a deal, and also of sabotaging an Egyptian-brokered prisoner exchange that would return the Israeli soldier kidnapped on June 25 in Gaza and free nearly 1,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

Soon, the political quarreling spilled onto Gaza's mean streets. Palestinians close to Abbas say that Fatah wanted to hobble the democratically elected Hamas government by a series of strikes by government workers (many of whom are loyal to Fatah) demanding that a penniless Hamas government somehow pay their wages. With U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice touring the Middle East this week, Abbas was also anxious to show the unpopularity of the Hamas government, as a prelude to dissolving Haniyeh's cabinet, sources close to the president told TIME.

So, according to senior Fatah officials, Abbas went a step further: on Sunday thousands of armed, pro-Fatah policemen in Gaza were ordered to go on strike. When marauding police set fire to a bank, the interior minister assembled 3,000 Hamas militants to break up the strike. Gun battles ensued for the next three days inside the Gaza strip and in the West Bank. Eleven Palestinians were killed and another 150 were wounded, hospital workers say.

If Abbas does dismiss the Hamas government, it could trigger a deadly uprising in the Palestinian territories. Prime Minister Haniyeh will not slink off quietly, and his Hamas forces are more disciplined than Abbas's men and equally well armed. So far, Fatah and Hamas shrugged off pleas from Arab governments that the only victor in a fight between them would be their common foe, Israel. One miltia linked to Abbas, the al-Aksa Martyr's Brigade, has vowed to start assassinating Hamas leaders in Palestine and abroad. Israelis military officials are also alarmed by the chaos in Gaza; they fear that, inevitably, a civil war among Palestinians will flood over into Israel.

—with reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem