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Game of life and death continues

Despite cease-fire, Gaza still feels to many like a war zone.

On Jan. 23, worshipers flocked to mosques like Al-Amari Mosque in Gaza City for the first Friday prayers since Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire. The Imam stressed a message of "patience." (Elliot D. Woods/Pulitzer Center)

GAZA CITY — Seven-year-old Ahmed Haslan was playing at a neighbor's house last week, in the village of Shujayeh, near Gaza's border with Israel, when a bullet struck him in the head, leaving him within an inch of his life.

Dr. Omar Al-Manassra, a trauma physician at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, where Haslan is in critical condition, held an x-ray of Haslan's head, pointing to the bullet that remains lodged in his skull.

"We had been hearing sporadic firing near the border all morning," said Majid Haslan, Ahmed's father. But Haslan was unprepared for the shock of finding his son wounded, almost a week after Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire, ending its 22-day conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Stories like that of Ahmed Haslan leave residents here deeply skeptical of the Israeli cease-fire. They say that Israeli snipers have been firing randomly on farms and towns near Israel's border with Gaza, and fisherman claim that Israeli patrol boats have been firing on Gaza's Mediterranean coastline.

The Spokesperson's Office of the Israel Defense Forces claims that gunboats have fired warning shots at fishing vessels that violated the Israeli naval blockade — about five kilometers offshore — but the IDF claims to have no knowledge of gunfire in the area where Ahmed Haslan was wounded and says it is investigating the matter.

On Tuesday, a bomb planted by Hamas fighters near the Kissufim border crossing with Israel killed one IDF soldier and wounded three, according to Israeli authorities. The attack marks the first major act of violent resistance mounted by Hamas since the tentative cease-fire began on January 18.

Israeli helicopters retaliated immediately, according to Palestinian villagers near Kissufim, killing Anwar Zamoura, 28, a vegetable farmer from the town of Abassan Zourira.

As Israel and Hamas negotiate through Egyptian intermediaries in Cairo, rising violence in the Gaza Strip casts a pall of doubt over the possibility of a long-term cease-fire. Hamas officials balked at Israel's proposal of an 18-month cease-fire, suggesting a one-year term instead.

Hamas has demanded the free passage of cargo through land ports on the Egyptian and Israeli borders as a primary condition for a lasting cease-fire. But during a trip to Brussels last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asked the international community to help Israel strengthen its blockade against Gaza, not lift it.

The Israeli Air Force hammered the illegal tunnel network on Gaza's border with Egypt during the three-week conflict in an attempt to shut down the flow of weapons to Hamas, and Israeli officials have said that they will continue to combat smuggling in the area.

"Israel reserves the right to react militarily against the tunnels once and for all," Livni told her European counterparts.

Hamas supporters say that recovering from the devastating Israeli onslaught will keep their fighters occupied in the coming months, and that renewed efforts at resistance will have to wait.

"I don't think Hamas will resist in the near future," said Ibrahim Al-Madhoum, 30, a writer for the pro-Hamas publication Al-Bian who holds a Masters Degree in Middle East Politics from Al-Quds Open University in Gaza City. "At this moment, Hamas has to focus on rebuilding."

Mr. Al-Madhoum's predictions appear misguided in light of Tuesday's attack on IDF forces. However, during a sixth-month cease-fire between Israel and Hamas last year, which ended days before the recent conflict began, Hamas launched dozens of rockets and mortars into southern Israel, suggesting that Hamas' definition of cease-fire allows for minor resistance operations.

Gazans cite numerous incidents like the wounding of Ahmed Haslan as evidence that Israeli cease-fires are also nominal at best.

Despite mounting tensions on the border, residents here are losing no time assembling the remnants of their lives, salvaging the usable bits and pieces of their homes, seeking distraction in smoke-filled sandwich shops and Internet cafes.

For prominent allies of the Hamas political rival, Fatah, however, the cease-fire has been accompanied by fears of retributive violence.

A local leader of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, a breakaway group from that previously controlled by Yasser Arafat, pulled out a flower-printed spiral notebook and ran through a list of people he claimed had been tortured or killed by Hamas since the recent conflict began.

"They gouged out Ahmed Shaqura's eye and shot him in the legs. They said he was a spy because he had an Orange cellphone," said the leader, who asked to remain unnamed out of fear for his family's safety. The man he was referring to was an electrician with mobile service from Orange Cellular, an AT&T affiliate that provides mobile service in Israel, he said.

Shaqura, 52, was rushed to Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis for treatment, but doctors could not save him.

Khaled Shaqura claims that Hamas murdered his brother, Ahmed, after kidnapping him from Nasser Hospital around 4 a.m. on Jan. 15. The Revolutionary Council source suspects that Hamas targeted Ahmed Shaqura because of Khaled's ties to the previous Fatah government.

"Hamas is a fundamentalist organization that considers Fatah members non-Muslims and thinks they should be killed," the source said. "It is extremely dangerous for us here."

Hamas Ministry of Interior officials have acknowledged they are currently investigating and arresting "collaborators," but have rejected claims that they are targeting Fatah exclusively.
In the narrow alleys of Beach Camp, home to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, young Fatah supporters seem unfazed by talk of an anti-Fatah backlash.

"I've heard about it, but I haven't seen it here," said Mohammad Kollab, 23, a Fatah policeman before the 2007 Hamas takeover.

Asked whether the rumors scared him, he laughed, turned to a group of friends who he said had ties to Hamas, and yelled, "I'm Fatah!"

Among ordinary Gazans, the misery and hardship arising from last month's conflict and the struggle to regain normalcy have pushed politics to the fringes of daily life.

Seeking shelter from the wrenching sorrow that hangs over Gaza City like a cloud, Muslims flocked to mosques on Friday, the Islamic holy day, for the first Friday prayers since the cease-fire. Ahab Hassoun, 31, a former soldier under the Fatah government, said he felt relieved after attending prayers at Al-Amari Mosque in Gaza City.

"I was so heartbroken, but the sheikh," Gaza Mufti Abdel Karim Al-Kahlout, "talked about holding hope for our children, and about patience," Hassoun said.

Twenty-two members from Hassoun's extended family died during the three-week war, but he managed a sobering smile as he recounted the sheikh's optimistic message. "This day is better than the last days," he said, "at least it is calm and safe."

(Elliott D. Woods is reporting from Gaza on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)
 
 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/israel-and-the-palestinian-territories/090126/game-life-and-death-continues