Gaza Prepares for Failure

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As the leaders of Fatah and Hamas huddled in Saudi Arabia Tuesday night in search of a deal to resolve their conflict, the checkpoints scattered across Gaza were mostly quiet. But the masked gunmen manning them looked exhausted and irritated after a week of nearly non-stop fighting that killed about 60 people and wounded more than 200.

Everyone in Gaza seems to offer a different reason for what started the fighting last week between fighters loyal to the Hamas-controlled government and the various militias of President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party. But most agree that the fragile cease-fire put into place on Sunday has no chance unless the Palestinian leadership can pull off a near miracle in Saudi Arabia under the guidance of the Kingdom's last-ditch mediation effort.

"Maybe being this close to God will stop this madness," says Abu Awad, a Gaza merchant referring to fact that the Palestinian rivals are meeting in Mecca, Islam's holiest site.

Divine help may well be needed to break the deadlock, since besides the thorny political issues at stake — recognition of Israel, control over public finances and whether to release a seemingly forgotten captive Israeli soldier — Gaza's problems, especially after the latest round of fighting, go far beyond politics. The culture of blood feuds at a clan level is well entrenched in Gaza, and dozens of angry families are unlikely to forgive those who killed their sons, brothers and nephews just because politicians declare the conflict resolved. And since the Israeli withdrawal in summer, 2005, Gaza is awash in weapons smuggled in from Egypt.

Each side's conduct upon the announcement of the cease-fire hints at the challenges ahead. Hamas moved its men off the streets of Gaza City, retreating to checkpoints in the Khan Yunis camp where it holds sway. But in Gaza City, militiamen under the command of Fatah security chief Mohammed Dahlan, whose nephew was kidnapped by Hamas fighters last week, fortified their positions at key intersections.

Inside Dahlan's fortress-like compound in Gaza City, his men were wielding brand-new M-16 rifles and were clearly organizing for future fighting, even as leaders claimed high hopes for the Mecca peace conference. As Dahlan's men pointed out where the mortar and grenade rounds had landed during a recent Hamas attack, they were not in a conciliatory mood.

"No, we must crush them no matter what they say in Mecca," shouted one man, who had lost a brother in the fighting. An official quickly hushed him, but during the outburst, several of his comrades murmured their approval for revenge.

For their part, Hamas officials toe the reconciliation line, but not unconditionally: Several supporters said that they supported peace for Gaza, but only if the "criminals who destroyed the Islamic University face justice." The Islamic University, a center of support for Hamas, was burned and ransacked last week by gunmen loyal to Abbas.

In the effort to smear one another as agents of outside forces, many Hamas supporters imply that Dahlan and his men are being backed by the U.S. and Israel, while Fatah supporters have been heard shouting "Hamas is Shi'ite, Hamas is Persian" — there is no Shi'ite presence among the Palestinian Muslims, but the reference was designed to draw attention to Iran's backing for Hamas.

The fortification and rearming of Fatah forces from outside — most graphically visible in the form of four recently arrived armored personnel carriers —is a sign that Abbas and Dahlan are not counting on the Mecca talks succeeding.