- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — Militant squatters loyal to rivals Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are turning open lots in the Gaza Strip into ad hoc military bases, a development that some fear will lead to open warfare between rival Palestinian factions.

Leaders at the camps say they are acting in the name of the Palestinian uprising against Israel, but the growing presence of what are essentially guerrilla training camps comes at a time of growing instability in Gaza.

“Everyone is showing their strength under the umbrella of the resistance,” said Tawfik Abu Khoussa, a former spokesman of the Palestinian Interior Ministry. “If there is a little problem between the factions, maybe they will start a civil war.”

Shaken by Israeli artillery barrages and choked economically by the closing of its main commercial passage to the outside world, Gaza has been engulfed by a yawning power vacuum after January’s parliamentary elections in which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party was routed by Hamas.

The camps — many of which have sprung up amid the rubble of the former Jewish settlements — are marked by barbed wire, a tent and a banner of whatever militia has laid claim to the territory.

The camps are used for rifle practice and to recruit new members to the ranks of what Palestinians call “the resistance.”

“From 16 years old, the children have to be a part of a faction,” said Abu Harwun, a commander of a militia affiliated with Fatah known as the Abu Reesh brigades.

The camps “raise the hope” of teenagers who are recruited fresh out of high school so they can be prepared for the “military life,” he said.

Abu Harwun, who used a pseudonym because he is wanted by Israel, commands a former Israeli military outpost overlooking Gaza’s second largest city of Khan Younis.

The outpost is cordoned off by razor wire, with sandbags used to fortify the entrance guard post. The militia’s frayed blue and magenta banner fluttering quietly in the breeze is their deed of ownership.

“We just took this place,” said Abu Harwun. “Until now, there is no authority in Gaza. If they start building this place up, we’ll leave.”

Although the new Hamas government has pledged to bring order to the lawlessness and chaos that have reigned throughout the West Bank and Gaza, militants see Hamas’ support for continued violence against Israel as a green light to set up more camps.

The camps are deserted during the day, but they awaken at night with activity. The sites are a launch pad for the rocket attacks into Israel that have spurred a weeklong barrage of retaliatory Israeli shelling, killing 17 Palestinians.

One of those attacks targeted the Abu Reesh hilltop, killing a militia member.

Abu Harwun points to a pair of small divots in the dirt road just outside the gate of the encampment where the artillery shells exploded.

“He was blown to pieces. You can still see the blood,” said the militant commander, who criticizes the Hamas government for ordering its gunmen to hold fire against Israel.

Highlighting the tension between Hamas and Fatah, Palestinian gunmen from Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militia briefly took over the Palestinian Cabinet building in the West Bank city of Ramallah yesterday. The gunmen were protesting the Hamas government’s refusal to meet their demands for perks and new promotions, the Associated Press reported.

“People are scared that this power struggle between Fatah and Hamas can turn ugly into a violent struggle between the two,” said Eyad Saraj, a human rights activist who heads the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.

Mr. Saraj said that the political rivalry is liable to quickly devolve into a free-for-all among rival militia strongmen and regionally based Gaza clans.

“If everyone is taking a piece of land and making it his base, we fear that Gaza will be turned into a feudal system in which these military leaders will take an area and declare it their own territory,” he said.

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