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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 May 2006, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Gaza's culture of violence

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC News, Gaza

Palestinian leaders have been trying to forge a common approach to the growing political and economic pressure on the Palestinian Authority since the Hamas government came to power. But much of the debate at a conference this week centred on the fighting between Palestinian factions which has left at least 10 dead in the last month.

Palestinians on the beach at Gaza City
Many people in Gaza have not been paid for weeks
Nothing is easy in Gaza.

The other day I sat watching a group of fishermen on the beach.

Gaza does not have much, but it is next to the Mediterranean. People often relax on the sands in the evenings.

Children play and the men smoke a little shisha: tobacco that they draw through hubbly-bubbly water pipes.

During the day the beaches are places of work.

The men, about a dozen of them, were hauling in a big net. When they started, its floats were about two hundred yards offshore.

I could see by the way they were putting their backs into it that it was hard work.

When they brought it into the beach, their catch was a lot of green seaweed, and half a crate of tiny sardines that they said they would be able to sell for 50 shekels, which is a little less than US$11 (6).

The big question in Gaza is whether or not the violence will escalate into a civil war
Among 12 men, that works out at 90 US cents (50 pence) each for an hour's work.

Considering the grinding poverty and the culture of violence after almost 40 years of Israeli military occupation, it is amazing how many people you see laughing and smiling in Gaza.

Pain of sanctions

But this week there has been even less to smile about.

The financial sanctions put in place by the Americans, the European Union and Israel after Palestinians elected the Hamas government are really starting to hurt.

The hospitals cannot treat people in the way that they would like because they cannot buy drugs or even basics like tape, for attaching dressings, drips and the like.

The BBC team went round the main hospital in Gaza, as other journalists have done in the last few weeks.

It was easy to find children whose lives may be shortened by not having enough dialysis, or a man who was dying of cancer because he could not get to Israel for treatment, or doctors and nurses who walk to work because they cannot even afford a bus, because they have not been paid since mid-March.

One doctor had seen too many foreign journalists.

"You all come here and do this," he said, "and nothing changes. What's the point?"

Gunman on Gaza street
People were arming themselves and blaming the other side for everything bad that was happening

I asked him whether he had seen any sign of the emergency supplies promised by Israel and the United States, who say they do not want Palestinians to suffer.

He had not and they are suffering because of the decision to stop the money.

Another major problem is the fight for power between gunmen from Hamas and Fatah, the two main Palestinian factions.

Almost every day there is some sort of shoot-out between them and people are getting killed.

The big question in Gaza is whether or not it will escalate into a civil war.

For the time being, I do not think it will, as long as violence stays at a low level. But if there are serious incidents, like the assassinations of prominent people, it could become much more bloody.

I visited a family called Kweitar. The men are all commanders in Fatah's various armed groups.

I walked into their living room which, like all Gazan living rooms, was full of children.

Ready to fight

It was also full of weapons.

One man, who was cuddling a boy of about three, had a rocket launcher propped up next to him. His cousin was walking around looking for his cigarettes with a backpack full of rockets.

There were more rockets on the sofa and machine guns in the kitchen.

The teenage sons of the family were armed and ready to fight.

The reason for all this? They said that men from Hamas had put bombs under their cars.

They were convinced Hamas would come back to kill them.

They played and replayed a video clip from the previous night's news, showing a Hamas gunman stopping a car driven by one of their colleagues and shooting him the moment he opened the door.

One of the armed teenagers had it on his mobile phone.

"Secret assassination plans"

They looked at the clip whenever they needed reassurance about the perfidy of their opponents.

The senior men in the family said that Palestinians could never have a civil war.

It just was not going to be an option - for them.

But then they told me how half the Hamas men were killers and how they discovered their secret plans to assassinate Fatah leaders and to blow up their cars.

What worried me was that people were arming themselves and blaming the other side for everything bad that was happening.

The way that the Kweitar family sat nursing their weapons, talking darkly about their enemies reminded me of some villagers in Yugoslavia as the country broke up: fathers and sons nursing guns that they had dug up from under the plum trees, convincing themselves that they were right, and that their neighbours wanted them dead.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 27 May, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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