Civilians caught in the crossfire

Palestinian children demonstrate in Gaza city as they protest against the internal fighting between rival factions January 29, 2007. (MaanImages/Wesam Saleh)

Palestinians in Gaza say they have been trapped in their homes as deadly fighting between rival Palestinian militia groups had taken over the streets. Residents are hopeful that a truce on Tuesday morning between Hamas and Fatah would bring some form of normality back to their lives.

At least nine civilians, including three children, are believed to have been killed during battles between supporters of these two main Palestinian factions, which have claimed 32 lives since Thursday and left more than 110 wounded.

Hamas, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have been locked in wrangling over forming a national unity government to have international sanctions lifted. Sanctions were imposed on the PA after Hamas took control a year ago through democratic elections because Hamas refuses to recognise Israel, among other contested points.

But the negotiations have borne little fruit and the dispute has spilled onto the streets, leaving Palestinians such as 55-year-old Samer Mahmoud from Jabalia refugee camp unable to leave their homes as fighting escalates. Mahmoud and his son ran for cover as militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at the nearby house of a Fatah member in clashes that left two civilians dead.

Streets in the camp, which houses 100,000 Palestinian refugees, were deserted and shops closed, while militia took up positions at road junctions. “It is causing panic among us citizens - we need someone to stop this bloodshed,” said Mahmoud.

“The violence was severe and both sides showed no respect for the lives of innocent people or restraint in the use of weapons. They were using heavy rockets,” said Hamdi Shaqura, director of the democratic development project at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, which recorded every clash. “This was organised violence, not just scattered here and there, and we blame both Fatah and Hamas for it.”

The United Nations and aid agencies said they were continuing with their work, despite the fighting.

“The fighting hampers the movement of our international staff - but all our food distribution is carrying on and our schools and health centres are open,” said Johan Eriksson, spokesman for the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

“But it’s very hard for the parents of schoolchildren - they sit at home worrying that their children are going to be shot,” he said, adding that the school term is due to end next Thursday.

“We are just staying low key and assessing the situation but we are continuing with our work,” said Allyn Dhynes, spokesman for WorldVision, which works with local Palestinians on agriculture projects.

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