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Page last updated at 15:54 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

Tough talk as Gazans face truce end

The BBC's Tim Franks reports from Gaza as the six-month truce between Israeli and militants in the strip expires .

PRC militants train in Gaza (Dec 2008)
PRC leader Abu Attaya says his men "want to be martyrs"

In an olive grove, just off the main road running through central Gaza , a group of eight men are rehearsing for the end of the ceasefire.

They are clad in black paramilitary fatigues and balaclavas.

Seven of them carry AK-47s; one is holding a machine-gun. They go through their moves, sprinting back and forth, covering each other against an imaginary enemy, looking down their barrels at battles yet to be fought.

They are members of the small Palestinian faction, the Popular Resistance Committee (PRC).

Their leader, who calls himself Abu Attaya, tells me his men are itching for a fight.

"Us lions, we are used to fighting and dying as martyrs," he said, his men arranged around him in the classic paramilitary clump of strength.

"It will be a surprise for the enemy. We want to be martyrs and we deserve it."

Blockade tightened

You might expect a warning such as this from a large man in a balaclava. But the tough talk is spoken further up the ladder of power in Gaza.

The Islamist Hamas movement has been in control of the territory for 18 months.

Fawzi Barhoum, the Hamas spokesman, insists that any end to the ceasefire would carry huge popular support.

His argument is that the lull of the last six months has produced no change in Israeli policy.

Mirvat Abu Shwab, Gaza mother

We have to talk to the other side, we have to have peace, so that we can all - us and them - live safely

Mirvat Abu Shwab
Bereaved mother

"There are daily attacks by the occupation against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank," he says, and what he calls the "embargo" against Gaza has not been "broken".

The Israeli authorities argue that they have tightened the blockade over recent weeks in response to breaches of the ceasefire by Palestinian militants.

Strangely, despite that blockade, and despite the tremendous shortages that Gazans tell you they are enduring, there is, on one level, a semblance of normality in the territory.

There are many more cars on the road than there were a few months ago, thanks to the diesel smuggled in through the tunnels from Egypt.

The market in Palestine Square appears as crowded as ever. Stalls display beguiling heaps of home-grown oranges, strawberries and guava.

That is not to say that even what is available is affordable: one kilogramme of bananas costs 35 shekels ($9.50).

Gazans warn that that appearance of normality could, in any case, disappear overnight. Should full-scale hostilities resume, they say, a life of hardship would only become worse.

'No reason to live'

Mirvat Abu Shwab knows the price.

I first visited her home in Jabaliya earlier this year.

It was the day after her family had been caught in the crossfire of a midnight gun-battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants.

Her two oldest children, a 17-year-old girl called Jaqlin and an 18-year-old boy called Iyad, were killed in their living room, shot - according to Mirvat - by Israeli snipers.

Their loss is chiselled, now, into Mervet's face.

As we talk, her eyes redden and her voice cracks.

Gaza map

She recalls how she, along with her five children, were cowering in their living room, as the gun-shots and exploding shells rang out around them.

Iyad raised himself off the floor to go to the bathroom.

"He told me he'd been hit in the chest," Mirvat recounts. "I thought he was making a fuss."

Jaqlin raised her head to tell her mother that no, Iyad was injured.

As she did so, a bullet ripped through her mouth, and came out behind her ear.

She died immediately, her two year-old sister still clutched to her chest. Iyad died as he was taken away to hospital.

"We don't love this life any more," Mirvat says, twin photos of her dead children beside her, in a painted wooden frame.

"We feel like there is no reason to live any more." She then echoes the words her brother-in-law had told me that cold morning in March.

"We have to talk to the other side, we have to have peace, so that we can all - us and them - live safely."

But as the six-month lull peters away, the violence has been growing. Few people inside Gaza expect that the relative calm will last.

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