As Mecca talks begin, Gaza counts its victims

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The Independent Online

It was mid-morning on easily the worst day of fighting, but Mahmoud al-Dadouh, 15, thought the battle he had been watching from the third floor roof of his family home was over. At about 10am, as his father, Maher, 39, explained yesterday, the Hamas paramilitary Executive Force had attacked and finally occupied a training camp used by a Fatah-dominated presidential security force about 150 metres from the house.

"My son heard the shooting and went upstairs. He wanted to see what was happening. He started to come down and then one bullet went into his temple and came out the back. We cannot really tell who fired the bullet..." As Mr Dadouh trailed off, pointing towards the now ruined training camp as the direction from which the fire came, his cousin Medhad, 37, explained: "It was random shooting everywhere."

Mahmoud's brother Hussam, 18, who was just in front of his brother on the stairs when he heard the shot, said they had been frightened by what they saw from the roof but said: "We didn't think we were in any danger to ourselves. And we thought it was all finished."

A red-eyed Mr Dadouh, who farms olives and vegetables in the Tel Al Hawa suburb on the southern fringes of Gaza city, was still too distraught yesterday to describe what sort of boy his third son, a ninth grader in the local preparatory school, had been. But his cousin said: "He was a good boy. He did what his parents told him. He was good in his class at school. He would help his father plant vegetables and work on the land when he was not in school."

The random shot which killed Mahmoud last Friday made him a statistic, one of three children among the 29 Palestinians whose lives were lost in the three days of ferocious fighting between Hamas and Fatah forces which started when Hamas attacked a presidential convoy and which has horrified and angered the large majority of Palestinian civilians here. As they have tentatively returned to a semi-normality which many fear could be short-lived, their hopes rest with a Saudi-brokered summit in Mecca at which the factions are making their heighest profile effort yet to agree a coalition government of "national unity" and pull Gaza back from the brink of a possible civil war.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), which has for many months warned of the need to curb deaths in factional violence since the breakdown of law and order started last summer, described the casualties last week as being "along the lines of the bloodiest Israeli incursions". Certainly the wreckage of concrete bunkers at the Tel Al Hawa camp and the bullet holes in buildings neighbouring the Dadouh home recall Israeli operations. That this and the casualties are the product of inter-Palestinian violence angers no one more than an emotional Raji Sourani, the PCHR director. Thumping his desk, he says: "I was mad and sad when we came to this. We are torturing our own people. We are imposing curfews on our own people. What is this? This is not us."

Mr Sourani, 53, is a veteran human rights activist who never thought of leaving Gaza during the worst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Asserting that he has hope that the Mecca summit will bring peace, he nevertheless adds: "If this [violence] will continue, you will not find me here. Not because I'm afraid but because I cannot tolerate it. It's breaking my heart." Using the term for "catastrophe" Palestinians apply to their flight in the 1948 war, he adds: "It's the new Nakba."

Mr Sourani is critical of both factions and says each must realise that "both Fatah and Hamas will continue to exist". He blames Hamas' military wing for seizing control from the political leadership. And he hopesultra-hawkish elements in Fatah who have tried to persuade the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that it is possible to "delete Hamas" have seen the error of their ways. He is unimpressed by the argument that any compromise in Mecca which falls short of an unequivocal Hamas commitment to recognise Israel, permanently renounce violence and abide by previous agreements will anger the US. "I don't care about the Americans," he says. "If you have self respect you will impose it on others."

Back at the Dadouh home, the dead boy's brother Hussam says of the Mecca summit: "I hope they will make peace because killing each other is forbidden in Islam." Hamas paid for the funeral - as factions regularly do whether the bereaved are supporters are not - and after it, planted a flag on a pole inside their courtyard. But Medhad al-Dadouh, also a farmer, says: says: "We have no relations with any faction. We are people living in peace... We reject the fighting. We are one blood, one interest. We hope that they will reach an agreement in Mecca."

The grieving Maher al-Dadouh doesn't want to talk politics. But asked if he hopes the summit will prevent other deaths like his son's, he says quietly the word on most Gazan lips this week. "Inshallah [God willing]. I hope this. It all depends on God."