Johann Hari: Will Gaza, like Iraq, descend into civil war?

The people fear that, like animals trapped in a tiny cage, they will turn on each other
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The Independent Online

Every time I come to Gaza - this clogged, cramped collection of palm trees and bomb craters on the Mediterranean - it is crumbling and collapsing a little more. As I wander the streets, I find rusting old cars are slowly being replaced by rickety horse-drawn carts, with women and children clinging to the back like refugees fleeing the 19th century.

The refugee camps themselves are sagging into the earth, with nobody bothering to rebuild the bombed-out homes since they expect them to be blown up again any time. There are open fires on street corners as people try to dispose of a nine-month build-up of rotting rubbish. This is just another result of the American and European choking-off of funds for the Palestinians since they democratically elected Hamas: there is no money to pay the bin-men. Gaudy and grim, with the sea air mixing with clouds of dust, Gaza looks oddly like Blackpool after a nuclear war.

The Israeli government claims the 38-year occupation here ended when they finally withdrew the illegal settlements built here by religious fanatics. This is a lie. As the heroic Israeli journalist Gideon Levy explains, "Without anyone paying attention, the Gaza Strip has become the most closed-off strip of land in the world - after North Korea." The Israeli army has been ordered to seal the borders of Gaza since June, making it almost impossible to get anyone - or anything - in or out. Some 1.5 million people are now locked in an area the size of the Isle of Wight, and their lives consist of excruciating boredom punctuated by moments of raw terror.

They increasingly fear that, like animals trapped in a tiny cage, they will turn on each other. There have been portents of a Palestinian civil war ever since the Hamas victory, and while I have been stumbling around Gaza they seem to be multiplying. This weekend, three children of a Fatah intelligence officer - aged seven, eight and nine - were gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Yesterday, a Hamas judge was shot in retaliation. The idea of a unity government between the factions seems to have joined them in the grave.

So will the molten misery of Gaza now be multiplied by a civil war - and what would it be about? The leaders of Hamas and Fatah claim vehemently they do not want a civil war and will do all they can to avoid it, but I wanted to get beyond their carefully constructed sentences and speak to their supporters on the ground.

Most people on the streets believe it will not happen. "We are all Palestinians," they insist. Almost everyone explains that in an individual family it is very common to find supporters of Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad. "Will brother kill brother?" asks Abu Ahmad, a 25-year-old student, sceptically. I am relieved - but then I also remember Iraqis saying the same thing to me four years ago, pointing proudly to the huge number of Sunni-Shia intermarriages. One of the many awful lessons of Iraq is that it only takes a determined few to start a civil war: if their attacks are gruesome enough - like targetting the other side's kids - they will crowbar open sectarian divisions, even where a great majority wants peaceful co-existence.

The tribal lineaments of a civil war are visible in the most unexpected places. Just as Fatah filled the government machine with its lackeys, now Hamas is trying to slowly replace them with its own. In the hospitals, many doctors are known as Hamas or Fatah-installed, as if there was a distinctively Hamas model of haematology or a Fatah school of pediatrics. One senior medical officer - Dr Bassam Said Nadi - explains: "We have two camps and two administrations, and it's very easy to get lost between the two. The bureaucracy is doubled, and when Hamas and Fatah don't agree, it's hard to do anything. To be frank, it is causing real problems in the hospitals."

But does this bifurcated state make a drift to civil war inevitable? Mahmoud Ajrami, an independent-minded Marxist analyst at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tells me, "The only reason a civil war hasn't broken out already here is because Fatah is so weak." He believes Fatah has a vested interest in avoiding civil war because it would obviously lose: while Hamas can bring 100,000 onto the streets easily, as I saw last Thursday, Fatah can barely muster a few hundred. It was always a Yasser Arafat-shaped party, and without his iconic status in the eyes of the Palestinian people, it has deflated like a failed soufflé. Hamas, he reckons, doesn't think a nasty civil war against such a feeble opponent is worth it.

When I ask people what a civil war would be about, their answers are unclear. Nobody mentions the division that seems to be most prominent to outsiders: the question of recognising the existence of Israel within the 1967 borders. In theory, Fatah recognises Israel, while Hamas refuses to. But in practice, Fatah is the only group still firing a few Qassam rockets into Israel during the official ceasefire, while Hamas has offered a 40-year hudna (ceasefire) if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders. To Palestinians, the differences on Israel have, it seems, blurred to near-zero - even though America and Europe consider them significant enough to justify the strangulation of Gaza.

No, the few reasons offered here are different. Nidal Sheikh Eid, the head of the Hamas student wing and an IT student, says, "Our difference with Fatah is over the questions of Islam and shariah. We believe in an Islamic environment with Islamic law, while Fatah is" - he spits these words - "a secular party." He adds that his interpretation of shariah does not include the "terrible" oppression of women that was seen in Afghanistan, but it does include punishments like chopping off the hands of thieves. Abdul Haqim Awad, the head of Fatah's student movement - guarded by bulletproof-vest-wearing bodyguards - agrees that this is the main point of division. "They want to impose sharia law, like the Taliban," he says. "We want secularism."

But this debate does not seem very alive to most of the Palestinians on the streets. Almost all looked blank when I asked about it, and muttered platitudes about Islam. To them, the biggest difference between Fatah and Hamas is corruption. One non-aligned nurse - speaking on condition of anonymity - said that in her hospital under Fatah, if you had an underweight baby you had to have connections with the ministry or pay a fat bribe to get your child into an incubator. "Now, that has ended," she says.

From the wrecked refugee camps of Gaza - braced for more Israeli terror - there seem to be no good reasons and no clear cry for yet more war. But will the people's shaky voices be heard over the sound of militias clashing?