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Battle between Fatah, Hamas scars 2 Palestinian universities

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—The smell of charred books drifted through the library as dozens of students gingerly stepped through candlelit hallways littered with shattered glass.

Young women in headscarves whispered as they peered into the ravaged rooms of the Islamic University's main library, where they once studied English, math and science.

"I can't recognize it," said math student Rihan Riha, 20, as she stood on a pile of rubble and took cell phone pictures of the wreckage. "It's totally destroyed."

Palestinians have grown accustomed to Israeli air strikes on government buildings, police stations and even this Hamas-allied campus, but this attack came from within. Months of violent clashes between the militant Islamic group Hamas and the secular Fatah party battered the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian universities there before the leaders of the two groups last week formed a coalition government.

But the attacks on competing colleges allied with the two factions are visible reminders of how deep the divisions between Hamas and Fatah run, how fragile their power-sharing deal may be and what could happen if the two return to open warfare.

Students said they're worried that, even with a unity government, the wounds from the clashes will hardly have time to heal before new battles begin.

"I'm not very optimistic about what will happen," Riha said. "This shows that some people in Fatah want to destroy any kind of agreement."

Sitting in his office overlooking his damaged 25-acre campus, Western-trained Islamic University President Kamalain Shaath said the assault did more than damage buildings; it undermined the Palestinians' drive to end decades of stateless poverty and depression.

"The most prominent achievement of the Palestinian people in the last 40 years has been the establishment of universities in Gaza and the West Bank," Shaath said. "In fact, they are the cornerstone for the whole society, and to have someone attack this university—or any university—I think it is shooting his own heart. The heart of Palestinian society."

Islamic University came under attack earlier this month, at the peak of the Fatah and Hamas clashes, which ended with nearly three dozen people dead and scores more wounded.

Forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stormed the university after claiming that Hamas was using its 25-acre campus as a launching pad for mortar attacks.

Virtually every building, save the campus mosque, was set ablaze. Thousands of books in the central library were destroyed. The student union hall was ransacked. Offices across campus were torched.

On the walls of one charred meeting hall, angry Hamas supporters left no doubt whom they blamed for the damage.

"Abbas and Dahlan to the depths of the hell," wrote one Palestinian, referring to the Palestinian president and Mohammed Dahlan, the Fatah security chief in Gaza who's blamed for stoking the factional fighting there.

Islamic University has long served as an intellectual incubator for Hamas. Virtually every major leader of the militant Islamist movement has taught or studied at the university, and the Israeli air force attacked an empty university building last July after claiming that Hamas had used the campus to plan attacks against Israel.

Last week's attack was the worst on the school, now a respected university with 17,000 students. It will take months to repair, and campus leaders are preparing to teach in outdoor tents.

The assault on Islamic University was followed by an attack on a smaller university affiliated with Fatah. Masked gunmen believed to be with Hamas attacked Al Quds Open University with rocket-propelled grenades, stormed the three-story building, doused classrooms with gasoline and set them on fire. Dozens of computers were stolen, and scores more were destroyed, said university spokesman Assad Keita.

"This is the only weapon we have as Palestinian citizens: Science. Education," Keita said as he wandered through the halls pointing out ashen boot prints where the militants kicked in doors and set the rooms ablaze.

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The Web site of the Islamic University in Gaza is at www.iugaza.edu/eng/

The Web site of al Quds Open University in Gaza is at: www.qou.edu/homePage/english/qouCenters/gazaEducationalArea.jsp

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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