Gaza on war footing as Israel declares it "enemy"

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GAZA, Sep 20 (Reuters) Masked gunmen crouch behind piles of sand, fingers on the triggers of their rifles, while others rig explosives along the streets of Gaza.

The Hamas-run Gaza Strip is bracing for a major incursion by Israeli forces after the Jewish state labelled the territory an ''enemy entity'' yesterday, a move the Islamist group described as a declaration of war.

Wearing brightly coloured headbands, hundreds of militants have taken up positions along the border fence with Israel and in Gaza city whilst ordinary people shovel sand into bags to use as barriers to block any invading troops.

''The preparations by militants gave us the feeling the Israelis are about to invade any minute,'' said taxi driver Khaled Ali, as militants flagged him down at a checkpoint. ''God forbid, if Israel invaded there would be a massacre.'' Israel said yesterday it would reduce its fuel and power supplies to Gaza and would continue military activity and ''targeted killings'' in the territory after a rocket fired by militants hurt some three dozen Israeli soldiers last week.

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June after fighting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction, said the move was tantamount to declaring war.

''We will not surrender and we will fight together with all our people,'' Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said.

''WE WILL FACE THEM WITH DEATH'' Militants in Gaza regularly fire rockets into Israel and Israeli forces have raided the enclave, from which troops and Jewish settlers were evacuated two years ago.

Israel, which retains tight control of Gaza's air, land and sea borders, has so far opted for targeted incursions rather than a broad offensive, which could cause heavy casualties on both sides.

But Hamas forces have been bracing for tougher reprisals after last week's strike on the army base.

Militants from factions aligned to Hamas and other political groups started preparing for a possible incursion a few days ago, holding training sessions for gunmen and planting explosives at night which are defused at dawn.

They beefed up security ahead of Wednesday's Israeli security cabinet meeting to foil any surprise attack.

''We have God at our side and God is greater than Israel and America,'' said Abu Ahmed, spokesman of the Islamic Jihad armed wing, which claimed joint responsibility for last week's rocket attack. ''We will face them with death,'' he told Reuters.

Some Gazans said a confrontation with Israel could alleviate factional tensions between Hamas and Fatah by forcing the rivals to units to fight their common foe.

Abu Thaer, a spokesman for Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, said all groups should unite against Israel because the ''enemy's fire does not differentiate between Hamas and Fatah''.

''A raid will make Hamas and Fatah brothers fight against the Zionist enemy,'' Abu Thaer said.

Supermarket owner Ali, a Fatah supporter who declined to give his full name, agreed.

''A war with Israel may stop or at least put aside the internal conflicts,'' he told Reuters as he served customers.

''HELL OF GAZA'' But there was no immediate sign of an end to tensions between Hamas and Fatah as the Islamist group blamed its rivals for a series of bomb attacks against its headquarters in Gaza and accused some Fatah officials of conspiring with Israel.

Two Hamas Executive Force members were shot and wounded by unknown gunmen in a Gaza refugee camp yesterday, witnesses and the group said. No one immediately claimed responsibility but residents said Hamas forces detained dozens of Fatah supporters in the camp after the shooting.

Gaza political analyst Hani Habib said he doubted an Israeli military attack would end Palestinian factional hostilities.

''Theoretically an Israeli assault should unite factions, but practically we have seen this is not the case with Palestinian groups,'' Habib said, noting factional violence continued last May amid tensions with Israel.

Already struggling with political infighting and an economic meltdown caused by border bockades, ordinary Gazans were braced for the worst.

''There is no escape from the hell of Gaza,'' said Abu Ali, owner of a clothes store. ''Israel is the cause of all our miseries but Abbas and Hamas are responsible too.'' Some commentators noted Israel may hold off on a major invasion of Gaza for fear of bolstering Hamas, which rallied support among Palestinians for its strident opposition to Israeli occupation of Gaza and the larger West Bank.

''For that reason I could not think Israel would rush into large scale raid into Gaza,'' Habib said.

''Hamas is in crisis and Israel will not rush to rescue it.'' REUTERS SZ AS0914

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