FEATURE-Deep divisions a year after Hamas seized Gaza

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip, June 11 (Reuters) - A year after Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip after days of bitter fighting, Palestinians in the enclave and beyond remain deeply divided over the Islamists' contribution to their lives.

Their supporters welcome what they say is a decline in factional violence that troubled Gaza and argue that what President Mahmoud Abbas called a "coup" last June was a last resort against members of Abbas's secular Fatah movement who had been set on ousting the elected, Hamas-led government.

But critics cite shortages of fuel and other supplies and the virtual impossibility of travel, even for some who are gravely ill, since Israel tightened a blockade it says punishes Hamas for rocket attacks. Some also complain of intimidation of Hamas's opponents and pressure to follow Islamic behaviour.

Though many in Gaza are wary of speaking out in complaint and the green banners of Hamas dominate public buildings, the yellow flags of Fatah, long led by the late Yasser Arafat, are still common on homes. Two neighbours in the town of Khan Younis fly rival colours and offer differing views of the changes.

"The previous rule was better," said one Fatah supporter, who asked to be identified by her informal name Umm Wael al-Ser, sitting under a poster of Arafat. "Nowadays there is the Israeli siege and there are no jobs."

In the same southern Gaza Strip town, another housewife, Hamas supporter Hanan al-Astal sits veiled in black under a poster of slain Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

"For me Hamas is better, we have tried the brothers (Fatah) but they did not do anything concrete to improve things," said the mother of five.

Several hundreds of Palestinians, including many civilians, died in the factional fighting last year, which ended in victory for Hamas on June 14.

Abbas responded by sacking Hamas leader and then prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and appointing technocrat Salam Fayyad to run a Fatah-backed administration in the West Bank. Abbas later opened U.S.-backed peace talks with Israel.


Many ordinary Palestinians applaud the Islamists, branded a terrorist group by Israel and the United States, for improving security in Gaza. Clan fighting has abated, crime has fallen and policemen, ubiquitously sporting Islamist beards, direct traffic.

But while criticism is levelled mainly at Israel rather than Hamas, Gaza residents say hardship has increased in almost every other aspect of life since the Islamist takeover.

Gaza's economy is in meltdown. The majority of Gaza's 3,900 factories have shut since June because of the Israeli embargo on most imports, 100,000 people have lost their jobs and prices for fuel, cooking gas and household goods have shot up.

Emad Hassoun, a Gaza taxi driver, questioned the value of improved security if he is unable to feed his family.

"What about crossings? A ceasefire? Jobs? National unity with Fatah?" said Hassoun.

Abu Mohammed, a father of eight, sells boiled corn on the streets. "The situation is bad ... I used to work as a blasterer for 150 shekels a day ($47.6) and now I make 12."

Hundreds of students have lost places to study at foreign universities because they were denied Israeli travel permits.

And while Israel lets many sick Gazans travel for treatment in the Jewish state or elsewhere, Gaza's health ministry says at least 170 patients died after being denied permits to leave the enclave, which lacks advanced medical know-how and facilities.

Gaza cancer patient Intisar Rabah waited two months for permission to leave Gaza for treatment in the West Bank. The papers eventually arrived on Wednesday.

"Hamas is not bad but Israel has been using them as a pretext to deny us everything," Rabah, 50, said, her face contorting in pain. "The world is fighting Hamas and the people are the victims."

Rabah's doctor, Eyad Skaik, says therapy won't save her, but will ease her acute pain. "Gaza's sick are even deprived of the right to die in peace."


Violence along the Israel-Gaza border has increased since the Hamas takeover and threatened to derail U.S.-backed peace talks between Abbas and Israel.

More than 360 Palestinians have died this year in Israeli attacks, over a third of them civilians and many children, according to Israeli rights group B'Tselem. Three Israeli civilians have been killed in rocket attacks on southern Israel.

Egypt has been trying to broker a truce to end the killing and the blockade. Israel, whose leaders face domestic pressure to take tougher action, said on Wednesday it backed Cairo's ceasefire efforts but told its army to prepare for possible military action if mediation failed.

Some Gaza residents are as fearful of Hamas as they are of the Jewish state. While Hamas has brought order to the streets, some watchdogs say it has trampled on human rights.

"There are complaints of illegal arrests, suppression of people's rights to hold gatherings, and torture ... frankly we do not see a serious effort towards implementing the sovereignty of the law," said Khalil Abu Shammala, director of the Ad-Dameer Association for Human Rights.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the group was trying to improve its rights record and blamed Israel, Abbas and the United States for trying to foil its efforts. Hamas officials have denied making political arrests and say hundreds of its own members are behind bars in the West Bank.


Fatah activists are marking the anniversary of the Hamas takeover as a "second Nakba", in reference to the "catastrophe" of 1948, when some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes to make way for Israel.

"We are living under two occupations: Israel from outside the fence and Hamas from inside," a Fatah activist in Gaza said asking not be named for fear of reprisal.

Fatah spokesman Fathi al-Zarir said Gazans should use the anniversary to reject Hamas. "We hope that Hamas's time left ... will be less than they planned."

Abu Zuhri said Hamas wanted to reconcile with Fatah and called for Palestinian unity. But Abbas insists dialogue depends on Hamas first ceding Gaza -- a demand the Islamists reject -- and Haniyeh has played down chances of quick reconciliation.

Although Israel has opposed any rapprochement between the two sides, Gaza residents like painter Emad Hussein hold out hope dialogue could improve life in the enclave.

"Families are suffering because of the siege," said Hussein, who sat outside his house waiting for work that comes rarely. "We call upon President Abbas and Mr. Haniyeh to reconcile." (Editing by Samia Nakhoul)