KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip—Malki Shahwan silently picks at the peach tissue she's using to dab at the tears in the corners of her opaque eyes, eyes that her family says have gone blind from grief.
In the last 12 years, Shahwan has lost three of her eight sons to the battle with Israel. Now a young nephew, a Hamas militant, has died in a clash with other Palestinian gunmen in a battle for control of the Gaza Strip.
Overcrowded, impoverished and now dominated by Islamist fundamentalists, Gaza has never been a beacon of hope in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But now an unprecedented chain of events has turned this bedraggled strip of land between Israel and Egypt into a place of unrelenting death and mayhem.
Things are so bad that the United Nations' top humanitarian official recently called the Gaza Strip a "ticking time bomb."
"When I call it a time bomb, it means that sooner or later there will be a social explosion which is even worse than the one we have today," said Jan Egeland, the United Nations' undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs.
"There is security chaos," Shahwan said while sitting below a huge poster featuring photographs of her dead sons proudly holding rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns. "There are traitors—they shoot you in the back. There are gangs."
Nearly 540 Palestinians have died in Gaza in the 14 months since Israel pulled out in September 2005—a death rate not seen since the worst years of the intifada, the Palestinian uprising, which officially ended nearly two years ago.
Most of those have been killed in clashes with Israelis, including nearly 400 who've been killed in the four months since Israel launched a military offensive aimed at winning the release of a kidnapped soldier. Nearly 40 died in fighting between Hamas and the Fatah faction, which had dominated the Palestinian government until January.
There are few signs of hope. The Palestinian government remains paralyzed by inertia and international isolation, the fragile economy has buckled, and the number of Westerners willing to work in Gaza is dwindling in the face of increasingly menacing kidnappers.
There's been no movement toward the release of the Israeli soldier, and Palestinian groups continue to fire dozens of largely ineffective homemade rockets into southern Israel. That's prompted the Israeli military to threaten even tougher steps.
In the latest clash on Friday, Israeli forces opened fire on a group of unarmed Palestinian women who flocked to a mosque in Beit Hanoun to try to protect a group of militants trapped inside. At least two women were killed, sparking outrage from Palestinian leaders, who denounced the attack.
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With few reasons for optimism, some specialists in the region are beginning to wonder if the deteriorating conditions will spark a third Palestinian revolt.
"Our commissioner general some time ago said that if we continue in this course, then we must be concerned that the next generation will lead the next intifada," said John Ging, the head of the Gaza office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
"We know that poverty and violence go hand in hand, and radicalism is born from that environment," said Ging, whose agency provides assistance to many of Gaza's residents. "That is our principle concern going forward."
The most immediate crisis facing Gaza residents is the Israeli siege that was imposed after Hamas-led militants tunneled into Israel and captured an Israeli soldier at a military outpost on June 25.
Israel responded by bombing the area's only power plant, destroying key bridges, attacking government offices, arresting Palestinian lawmakers, closing the borders and launching a prolonged, low-level military operation. Nearly 400 Palestinians died, according to statistics compiled by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, compared with five Israelis, two of whom were killed on the Gaza border.
Gaza residents are familiar with Israeli military campaigns. But now they're also facing a threat from internal fighting.
Of the 538 Palestinians killed in Gaza since Israel razed its Gaza settlements, 38 died in internal clashes. While internecine fighting has broken out before, Gaza residents such as the Shahwans have never experienced the kind of protracted problems that are putting new strains on the fraying social network.
The first thing to greet visitors in the Shahwan family home in Khan Younis is a large poster of the three dead brothers, who are hailed as Hamas martyrs.
Recently, the family was forced to hang a new one in honor of a 21-year-old cousin, Wasfe, a Hamas militant who they say was killed by Fatah gunmen while heading off on a night patrol.
"We never expected him to die like this," said Shahwan's husband, Mohammed. "The threats from the Israelis are known to us and we know how to take care. But when the threat is from a neighbor or a relative? It's more dangerous."
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Hamas and Fatah have tried several times to contain the factional fighting, but each call for unity has been followed by new fighting. Gunmen recently fired on Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's convoy. Hamas tried to downplay the Oct. 20 attack as a random shooting and not an attempted assassination. But even so, it was an ominous reminder of the daily dangers in Gaza.
Plans to form a Hamas-Fatah unity government have bogged down, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas saying he won't form the new coalition until Hamas-led militants release the captured Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Hamas is refusing to release Shalit until Israel agrees to free important Palestinian prisoners.
Israel is refusing to stop its attacks in Gaza until Shalit is released and the rocket fire from Gaza ends. The United States is backing Israel in its refusal to talk to the Hamas-led Palestinian government until it abandons its longstanding vow to destroy Israel.
Amid the inertia, Israel is warning that it might move troops back along Egypt's border with Gaza, claiming that Hamas has been using tunnels along the border to smuggle in anti-tank weapons. Israel has offered no evidence to support the claim, but some in Gaza believe that Hamas is stockpiling arms—not to fight Israel, but to fend off a possible Fatah-led military coup or civil war.
Last month, Egypt moved 5,000 security forces to the border region in anticipation of Israeli action.
"We've continued to send out the alarm bells that the situation is getting worse and worse, and it just seems to continue to get worse and worse on the ground," said UNRWA's Ging. "For the people living in Gaza it's a disaster. And it's a crisis."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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