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Gaza militants shelve civil war to fight Israel

Written by: Staff
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JABALYA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza, June 29 (Reuters) After months of shooting each other, Palestinian militants have put aside bitter differences that pushed Gaza toward civil war to square off against Israeli forces moving across the border.

Armed with assault rifles and anti-tank rockets, masked gunmen from the governing Hamas group and factions allied to the rival Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas are patrolling the streets side-by-side and coordinating tactics.

''When the blood of Fatah fighters mixes with those of Hamas to water our land, that is the meaning of unity,'' said Abu Qusai, a spokesman for Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

At the teeming Jabalya refugee camp, eight armed groups including Hamas and Fatah have established a ''command centre'' to prepare for an expected Israeli incursion into northern Gaza.

Israel's forces entered southern Gaza yesterday to put pressure on militants to release an abducted soldier.

There have been no clashes yet, but this camp shakes every few minutes from artillery shells hitting open areas that Israel says it is firing to deter rocket launches.

Factions have also established a command centre in the southern town of Rafah, not far from where Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles have set up in a disused Palestinian airport.

Just a week ago the fear was of civil war.

A power struggle between Abbas and the three-month-old Hamas government had grown increasingly violent in Gaza and spread to the occupied West Bank.

Clashes between rival factions in Gaza had killed more than 20 people. Several senior security officials loyal to Abbas survived assassination attempts. Fatah gunmen torched the office of Prime Minister Ismail Hanyieh of Hamas in the West Bank.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank warned on June 13 that the Palestinians were near civil war.

All that appears forgotten.

''Internal differences are history now. All parties are united against a bigger challenge,'' said Palestinian political analyst Hani Habib.

JOINT PATROLS In Jabalya and the northern towns of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, militants wearing headbands representing their factions -- green for Hamas and yellow for Fatah -- mingled and exchanged speculation on when Israeli tanks would pour over the border.

They guarded the alleyways of the camp. At night, they have been planting homemade landmines for Israeli vehicles.

Besides unity among the gunmen, Hamas and Fatah political leaders appear to have patched up their differences over a political platform at the heart of much of the recent acrimony.

On Tuesday -- as Israel massed troops near Gaza -- they agreed a document that calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, areas captured by Israel in a 1967 war.

The deal still has to be signed by Abbas and Haniyeh and the sides disagree over whether the manifesto implicitly recognises Israel. Fatah says it does but Hamas, which is sworn to destroy the Jewish state, is adamant it doesn't.

Many ordinary Palestinians said they were just glad to see militants united after months of internal chaos.

''We are of the same blood. We have one enemy,'' said Abu Adel, 60, as militants built a sand-barrier near his house.

REUTERS CH BD1935

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