Fighting engulfs streets

Published May 17, 2007

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Fighting between Hamas and Fatah continued on Wednesday, with Hamas gunmen killing six Fatah guards.

Hamas also fired rockets into Israel, in an apparent attempt to draw the Israelis into the escalating violence. The strategy worked, to some degree, as Israel launched an airstrike on Hamas, killing at least five people.

It was the bloodiest day since violence resumed four days ago, threatening to bring down a two-month-old unity government.

Violence was so rampant that Hamas inadvertently ambushed a jeep carrying its own fighters, killing five. In all, at least 41 Palestinians have died in the infighting.

The streets of Gaza City were empty except for gunmen in black ski masks.

Terrified residents stayed home from school and work, huddling in dark homes after electricity to some neighborhoods was cut off by a downed power line.

At nightfall, Hamas announced its intention to begin observing a unilateral cease-fire, and President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah also called on the warring parties to hold their fire.

However, similar truces the two previous evenings did not hold.

Here are some questions and answers about the current conflict.

Who are the opposing forces in the factional fighting?

The moderate Fatah movement, the traditional ruler, controls most of the Palestinian security forces. It is clashing with the militia set up by the Islamic hard-liners of Hamas, which won an election and took power a year ago.

What are the main differences between Fatah and Hamas?

Fatah, led for decades by the late Yasser Arafat, is a largely secular movement that carried out hundreds of attacks on Israel before signing a partial peace accord in 1993. Hamas is a fundamentalist Islamic movement that does not accept a Jewish state in the Middle East. Fatah has a reputation for corruption and nepotism, one of the main reasons for its election loss to Hamas, which presents itself as a clean-governing alternative.

How will the factional fighting affect diplomatic efforts to bring peace between the Palestinians and Israel?

It is unlikely any progress can be made as long as large-scale fighting continues. The Palestinians will be preoccupied with their internal troubles, and Israel will be hesitant to negotiate with leaders who do not have control of their people.

Are the factions equipped for a long war?

Both sides are heavily armed, drawing on weapon stocks replenished over the years through large-scale smuggling.

How will the fighting affect the residents of Gaza?

If the fighting continues, it could deteriorate into a civil war and plunge the impoverished territory into extreme economic disarray. If a cease-fire is imposed and order is restored, aid and diplomatic efforts could be resumed - but only if the warring factions make a real peace.