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The clans of Gaza take on the men of Hamas
01-06-2009, 12:41 AM
Post: #1
The clans of Gaza take on the men of Hamas
The clans of Gaza take on the men of Hamas

By Tobias Buck

Published: November 22 2008 00:17 | Last updated: November 22 2008 00:17

Mohammed Hilles at the home of his son, two months after the Hamas raid in August

As night fell on Gaza on August 2, the leaders of the Hilles clan realised they could resist the enemy no longer. Their men had battled for more than 13 hours, since dawn, in a futile attempt to stop the security forces of the Hamas government from overrunning the family compound in the Shajaiyeh neighbourhood of Gaza City. As machine-gun fire pounded Hilles homes and rocket-propelled grenades rained down, the men surveyed their losses. Nine members of the family had been killed and more than 100 wounded, including six women and 17 children.
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Hamas gunmen were now swarming into the neighbourhood; what had been the family stronghold was becoming a deathtrap. Ahmed Hilles, the chief of the clan and a veteran power broker in the Gaza Strip, saw only one way out. Along with more than 180 gunmen and senior family members, he made a dash across an open field of scrub towards the wire-mesh fence that marks the border between Gaza and a different enemy’s territory: Israel.

Families under fire

June 11/12 2007
As violence escalates between Hamas and Fatah forces in the Gaza Strip, three members of the al-Masri family are killed by Hamas in Beit Hanoun.

June 13 2007
After two days of fighting, more than 200 members of the al-Bakr clan in Gaza City surrender to Hamas fighters. Eight family members were killed in the clashes, including five gunmen and two women.

June 14 2007
Hamas takes control of the Gaza Strip.

Oct 17-20 2007
Clashes between the Fatah-affiliated Hilles clan and Hamas gunmen claim the lives of six Palestinians. At least 20 more are wounded.

July 25 2008
A car bomb explodes outside a beach cafe in Gaza City. The blast kills five Hamas security officers and one girl. Hamas claims the bomb was planted by members of the Hilles family.

August 2 2008
Hamas security forces and police attack the Hilles compound, forcing more than 180 clan members to flee into Israel. Eleven Palestinians are killed and more than 100 are injured.

Sept 15 2008
A policeman is killed. Hamas blames the attack on members of the Doghmush family.

Sept 16 2008
The Doghmush family comes under attack from Hamas security forces and policemen. At least 12 Palestinians are killed and more than 40 injured.

The startled Israeli soldiers eventually allowed the men to enter, but not before blindfolding them, stripping them down to their underpants and searching for weapons. Pictures of the half-naked fugitives, humiliated but alive, appeared the following day, confirming what everyone in the Gaza Strip already knew: that the Hilles, until recently one of the biggest, strongest and most combative of the traditional Gaza clans, were defeated. The 500 gunmen that formed something of a private militia for the Hilles proved no match for the tough, disciplined fighters of Hamas. The new masters of the Gaza Strip had razed one of the last enemy outposts.

When the fighting was over, the humbling of the proud clan continued, as Hamas security forces arrested scores of family members, searched their homes and collected their weapons. It marked the decisive, though not final, blow in a war that has been raging inside the Gaza Strip since the territory fell to Hamas in June last year. Fought with vehemence and brutality, it pitted the Islamist newcomers of Hamas against a much older order – that of Gaza’s clans.

Extended families, or hamulas, have played a key role in Gaza’s social and political fabric for centuries. Some trace their roots back hundreds of years, while others settled in Gaza as refugees from the villages and towns that became part of Israel in 1948. The biggest hamulas boast thousands of members from hundreds of individual families, yet still manage to operate as close-knit units, answering to their mukhtar, the headman, and a small group of elders who advise him.

Tensions between Hamas and the Hilles clan, which supports the rival Fatah political party, had been brewing from the first day of Islamist rule in the Gaza Strip. The two sides had already clashed once before, in a shoot-out that left several people dead, but agreed a truce. Now, more than a year after Hamas ousted Fatah and the Palestinian Authority from the coastal territory, that ceasefire was over and done.

Months later, the cinderblock maze of narrow lanes and unpaved streets that forms the heart of Shajaiyeh bears witness to the ferocity of the fighting. Several houses are burnt out, and dozens are riddled with bullet holes and the craters left behind by the grenades. Staring down from many walls in the neighbourhood are haunting photographs – colour photocopied – of the young men who died in the clashes. Martyrs’ posters are normally reserved for fighters or civilians killed by Israeli troops, and are often put up by Hamas. Here, however, it is the victims of Hamas who are being mourned. One of the posters depicts a young man, clean-shaven and brandishing a huge machine gun. The dedication reads: “The Hilles family mourns the lion of the battle of dignity, Adhan Bassam Taleb Hilles / Let the machinegun sing the melody of our memory / We are the men of Shajaiyeh, and everyone is afraid of us.”

A few days before the assault, a car bomb had exploded outside a beachside cafe in Gaza City, killing five Hamas security officers and a girl. Hamas investigators quickly concluded that the bombers were members of the Hilles family, and demanded the handover of 11 people. At first the clan rejected the order, fearing that the men would be tortured or simply killed on the spot. But eventually Abu Osama Hilles, who runs a paint factory and was acting as the clan’s interlocutor with Hamas, won assurances that his relatives would be treated fairly. “The night before the attack,” he says, “I met again with the 11 wanted men and asked them to surrender themselves.” All agreed. But even as the men were getting ready to do so, Abu Osama heard worrying news. “There was a build-up of Hamas forces coming into the area,” he says. “At 5.30 in the morning, the fighting began.”

. . .

Many people had predicted that Hamas would sooner or later take on the Hilles and other big Gaza clans. Few, however, thought the conflict would be quite so bloody. Most of the clans were – and remain – reluctant to meddle in politics, and function largely as a social safety net, helping members who fall on hard times. Yet others developed into powerful political actors, running neighbourhoods and villages like private fiefdoms and even dabbling in national politics. Their powers reached a new pinnacle in the mid-1990s after the creation of the Palestinian Authority, the quasi-government set up to prepare for self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Several clans hitched their fate to a particular political faction, more often than not Yassir Arafat’s Fatah party. Others turned to violent crime, exploiting and accelerating Gaza’s descent into lawlessness and making a fortune from smuggling, kidnappings, extortion and robbery. The most powerful hamulas ended up not only with excellent political connections, but were also able to rely on hundreds of gunmen ready to do a family’s bidding.

For these clans, the events of June last year marked the beginning of a harsh new era. After years of tension between Hamas and Fatah, the conflict between the two biggest Palestinian political groups turned violent. Hamas, which had won a surprise victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections but was unable to translate its triumph into a lasting government, fought bloody street battles with Fatah. The Islamists won, taking control of the territory in which the movement was born two decades earlier.

Hamas moved quickly to consolidate its grip on power. After eliminating the direct political threat from Fatah, it turned up the heat on other groups. It targeted critical newspapers, battled with the judiciary and put pressure on universities and non-governmental organisations to support Islamist rule. Clans such as the Hilles, with a strong militia and equally strong ties to the Fatah party, represented a particular challenge, which Hamas took on with a vengeance. Today, not even the families doubt that the conflict, at least for the moment, has been won by Hamas. As Abu Osama says, “All the big families have vanished.”

As the Islamist group ponders its next moves, and amid fears that it may make a bid for power in the West Bank as well, the story of how Hamas defeated the clans of Gaza offers a glimpse at the workings of the divisive group. While Israel, the US and Europe shun Hamas as a terrorist organisation, Palestinians and most Arabs see it as a legitimate resistance movement. And despite its harsh rule in the Gaza Strip, Hamas continues to enjoy deep roots and a vast following among Palestinians. But as the clans were made to learn over the past 18 months, it is a group that, fired by a keen sense of ideological and religious righteousness, will move ruthlessly to crush opposition from within.

. . .

The Gaza Strip is not an area where opponents are easily ignored. It is 40km long, 10km wide, and its fast-growing population of more than 1.5 million makes it one of the most densely populated territories on earth. A handsome, sandy beach runs the length of the territory; not so long ago, it was destined to become a tourist attraction. Arafat had big dreams for the strip, which he boasted would be transformed into a second Singapore. Today, a half-finished luxury hotel on the northern fringes of Gaza City bears witness to those ambitious plans.

The strip has been under a strict Israeli embargo since Hamas took control of the territory in June last year. Even basic supplies disappear from the shelves for weeks at a time – making Gaza City one of the last places on earth where a host will try to impress his guests by serving bottles of Coca-Cola. The sanctions are designed to undermine Hamas and discourage militants from firing rockets at nearby Israeli towns. Until June this year, when Israel and Hamas agreed an uneasy ceasefire, the economic sanctions were supplemented by frequent military incursions and aerial attacks, claiming the lives of 399 Gazans this year alone.

Even with the ceasefire, however, curbs remain on movement into and out of the strip. Gazans call their homeland the biggest prison in the world, and it is easy to see why. Israel has surrounded the territory with fences and walls patrolled by soldiers. Anyone approaching the barrier from the Gaza side without prior co-ordination is likely to be shot at. Foreign journalists, aid workers and diplomats are allowed through the Erez terminal crossing six days a week; only a few dozen Palestinians a day share that privilege – mainly businessmen and patients seeking treatment at hospitals in Israel or Jordan.

Egypt, too, has sealed its border with Gaza, but uses its Rafah crossing into the territory as a safety valve. When the pressure inside the strip reaches boiling point, Cairo allows people out for a few days before resealing the border.

Inside the pressure cooker, the battle between the clans and Hamas ebbed and flowed according to the fortunes and political needs of the Islamist group. One of the first clans targeted by Hamas was the al-Bakr family, which controls much of the strip’s fishing fleet. Known as Fatah loyalists, they came under attack during the clashes between Hamas and Fatah in June last year; after suffering heavy casualties, more than 200 al-Bakr gunmen surrendered to the Hamas fighters. The al-Masri family in the northern town of Beit Hanoun was also targeted during the June fighting. And one month after the assault on the Hilles, the compound of the powerful and notorious Doghmush family came under attack, leaving 11 people dead, including two children. Few Gazans felt pity for the Doghmush, a clan with a fearsome reputation for violent crime, including the abduction and four-month incarceration of BBC journalist Alan Johnston last year.

At its most basic, the conflict is over individual loyalty. Unlike other political groups such as Fatah or Islamic Jihad, Hamas demands that its members place their political affiliation above all else – even above family and kinship. As Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, says: “Here in Gaza, the political affiliation is very strong. A man who is a member of Hamas will be loyal to the organisation more than to his own family.”

The Hilles learnt that this even applied to the more than 100 family members who defied clan tradition to join Hamas. “In the first clashes [between the Hilles and Hamas last year], most stood with the family against Hamas. In the second round they were neutral,” says Abu Osama.

Abu Mohammed Hilles, a burly 24-year-old with a thick beard and piercing eyes, embodies the dilemma. He has served in the Hamas military wing for six years, and while he was not asked to take part in the assault on his own family in August, he did not rush to defend his relatives either. “I cannot give up the movement – it is Islam – and I cannot give up the family,” he says.

Abu Mohammed and dozens of other family members are gathered on a blustery autumn day close to the Erez crossing. Almost three months have passed since the battle of Shajaiyeh, and the first of the Hilles men who fled across the border are expected to return today. The young men arrive one by one, picking their way along a track ripped open by the juddering tanks that used to operate here almost every day. Piles of concrete rubble and twisted metal are scattered across their path, which ascends gradually towards a barrier and a small parking lot. As the men walk, the rain slowly fills the potholes, turning the unpaved track into slippery mud.

A small crowd of flag-waving and cheering family members and friends has gathered to greet the men. The men approach their fathers and brothers, shake hands, exchange kisses and then collapse into a tight embrace.

I approach one of the youngsters, who reluctantly agrees to talk to me. He is pale and worried, and doesn’t want to give his name. Did he take part in the August battle with fighters from Hamas? He shakes his head. What does he think of the Islamist group now? As he searches for words, his father steps in, grabs him by the jacket and drags him away. Hamas had promised not to arrest or harm the Hilles men when they returned, but one still has to be careful about railing against a group that, at the height of the battle with Fatah, threw enemies, alive and handcuffed, from the rooftops of Gaza skyscrapers.

. . .

Not far from the scenes of reunion stands the house of Rafik al-Masri, who combines his daytime post as a professor of sociology with the rather more archaic role as an elder of the al-Masri clan. A distinguished looking man of 50 years, he wears a thin moustache and an easy smile. The imposing nose and high forehead give him an air of thoughtful authority, and his deliberate manner of speech betrays the long years he spent studying the works of neo-Marxist German sociologists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

We sit in his living room surrounded by heavy furniture, brocade curtains, gold-painted vases and four matching chandeliers. It is the type of modern baroque found in many Middle Eastern homes, but it is also at shocking odds with the dirt and poverty nearby. Just down the road lies a rubbish-strewn field that until a few months ago served as one of the main launch-pads for rocket squads targeting nearby Israeli towns.

The al-Masris trace their roots back to four brothers who arrived here from Egypt more than 300 years ago. Today, the family counts up to 5,000 members. Its status rests not only on tradition, numbers and the wealth of its leading members, but also on its ability to fight. Al-Masri says he can call upon at least 600 armed men to defend the family compound against attack. Another source of prestige lies with the family’s contribution to the Palestinian struggle against Israel. “The family has given 20 martyrs,” he states, pointing out that seven al-Masris have died in “martyrdom operations” – the term used by many Palestinians to describe suicide attacks.

The al-Masris and the other big Gaza clans that have dominated the territory’s political and economic life for decades, if not centuries, know how to survive regime change. To help each other through the bad times, the clan – like many others – operates a welfare fund: every male above the age of 16 is required to contribute at least five shekels (around 85p) a month. Rafik al-Masri, who manages the fund, says this gives him an annual budget of about 60,000 shekels (just over £10,000) to spend on funerals, weddings and study grants for needy family members.

The support of a large family became even more vital as the power of the Palestinian Authority declined after Arafat’s death in 2004 and Gaza descended into lawlessness. Along with the decline of the authority’s status came a gradual escalation in the stand-off between Fatah and Hamas.

The al-Masris backed the losing side. And they now have a foe some family members believe is more menacing even than the hated Israelis. “Hamas,” Rafik tells me, stressing every syllable, “is worse than the Israeli occupation.”

I ask him to explain the ferocity of the family’s animosity, so he tells me the story of his nephew, Louai al-Masri, who served as a bodyguard for the Palestinian Authority’s deputy head of intelligence in the Gaza Strip, another al-Masri. Just days before Hamas finally took over the Gaza Strip, the young man was stopped at a Hamas checkpoint and dragged from the car. “He was stopped while coming back from work. They shot him in the legs and left him in the street.”

Vowing revenge, the young man’s father and brothers went in search of Hamas gunmen. In a shoot-out on Beit Hanoun’s main market square, they killed one Hamas security officer and injured three more, setting off a bloody cycle of killings that reached its nadir just outside the town’s only hospital. More than 100 Hamas men laid siege to the hospital, while inside doctors were treating the injured al-Masri men. Eventually Hamas stormed the clinic, hauled out one of the attackers and shot him on the ramp leading up to Accident & Emergency. In total, “they assassinated three members of the family – my brother and two nephews,” Rafik al-Masri says.

. . .

Hamas today is at pains to stress that it does not seek all-out war with Gaza’s leading families. Unlike other, more radical Islamist groups, Hamas has often shown a tendency towards pragmatism. Keen to prove that it could govern as well or even better than Fatah, the group in principle had little interest in antagonising powerful players such as the Hilles or the al-Masris. In this case, however, moderation lost out to a mix of vulnerability, rigidity and the desire to crush even small signs of defiance – before they could escalate into a full-blown challenge to its authority.

Fawzy Barhoum, the ever-cheerful spokesman for Hamas, works hard to present the calm, acceptable face of the Islamist group. It does not always work (he recently blamed the global financial crisis on the “Jewish lobby”), but his appearance and manner are certainly a world away from the image of the gun-toting fanatic. He is dressed meticulously in a dark suit, grey shirt and tie. The two flags behind his tidy desk – the green banner of Hamas and the red, black, white and green flag of Palestine – are arranged in perfect symmetry.

A year ago, Barhoum was locked in something of a battle with the English language, which he delivered in an uneasy staccato. Since then, he has achieved a fluency that betrays his increasingly frequent conversations with foreign reporters. But at least some of his progress may also have to do with the methodical dedication typical of members of the Islamist group: on his desk, I notice a scrap of paper on which he jots down unfamiliar words and phrases with their Arabic translation. One is “destabilising”, another is “from the bottom of the heart”. Neither is used in our conversation.

“The clans are a victim of Fatah,” he insists, turning the conventional wisdom on its head. “When Abu Amar [Yassir Arafat] came back to Palestine, he came to depend on the clans for support. Fatah and its security apparatus gave the families guns and money.” In the years after Arafat’s death, as the power of the Palestinian Authority began to crumble, the clans used their new-found power to further their own – often criminal – interests, Barhoum says. Some clans kidnapped foreign journalists, erected roadblocks and terrorised the civilian population. “These families committed crimes, and even killings.”

Even independent observers acknowledge that Fatah was instrumental in politicising – and arming – a select group of powerful Gaza clans, and promoting family elders to top positions in the PA’s intelligence and security apparatus. Both the Hilles and the al-Masris saw leading members elevated to high offices under Fatah rule.

After the Hamas takeover in Gaza, the Islamists vowed to put an end to the general state of lawlessness. No one except members of the Hamas security forces was allowed to carry a weapon in the street; the families were ordered to remove roadblocks and checkpoints around their strongholds; Hamas even banned the firing of weapons during family celebrations – a custom that had caused numerous fatalities over the years, and provided a fearsome soundtrack to weddings and funerals in the strip.

Barhoum explains the rules governing the Gaza Strip today: “No one is above the law. No family is allowed to give shelter to people who committed a crime or carry weapons. We are not against any family – but everything has to be done according to the law.”

Ironically, Hamas worked to implement the very slogan that Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, chose for his election campaign (and on which, until recently, he conspicuously failed to deliver): “One law, one authority, one gun.” The Islamists made it clear that they would not tolerate any rival power inside the Gaza Strip – and soon set out to prove that defiance, even for a family as strong as the Hilles, would come at a bloody price.

In an unpaved lane not far from the main Hilles compound in Shajaiyeh, I find Mohammed Redda and his sons huddled over a motorbike. Dressed in a smart blue shirt and ironed jeans, the unemployed Redda introduces himself as a member of the extended Hilles clan. He relates the events of August with a mixture of resignation and pride: “We were sitting here when the clashes started,” he says, gesturing to a plastic chair standing just outside his three-floor home. They came under fire from an unfinished building on the other side of a small plot of land in front of the house. Several rocket-propelled grenades slammed into the plot, blasting holes the size of a football into the iron gate right next to where we stand.

The men brought the women and children to safety, before fetching their guns and firing back. The family lost the battle, but – as I am told by everyone here – not their honour. The Hilles, Redda says, held their own against the famously disciplined fighters of Hamas for 13 hours, inflicting several casualties on the Islamist forces. “We engaged with Hamas to protect our dignity and honour, and our dignity and honour are still intact,” he says.

And there is always revenge. “We lost 18 men. As soon as the situation changes, we will fight against Hamas again,” says Redda. One of his sons interrupts. “We always said we would never allow Hamas men into our houses unless they step over our corpses. We are going to break into their homes, and make their families suffer what we suffered here.” The small group of Hilles men that has gathered around us nod their approval.

Back in Beit Hanoun, the al-Masris are also thinking about revenge – just not at the moment, while Hamas is strong and in power. “For the time being, they can arrest us, they can detain us, but we will not be lured out on to the battlefield,” says Rafik al-Masri. “But we will never accept the principle of forgiveness. We will never let bygone be bygone. In Islam we say that every time has its own judge.” Justice, he adds solemnly, can “take hours, or can take years”.

I ask him whether the family erected mourning tents for the men killed in the stand-off with Hamas last year – usually a crucial part of honouring the dead in Gaza. Relatives spend hours languishing in the shade, to smoke, drink tea and swap stories and memories. Lighting up another cigarette, al-Masri slowly shakes his head. The family has unfinished business, and in the tradition of the Gaza clans, not putting up a mourning tent is a sign that the dead will be avenged. The families will not forget the losses and humiliation suffered at the hand of Gaza’s new masters.

Abu Osama Hilles, sitting in the office of his paint factory, told me earlier that the families had “vanished” under the Hamas onslaught. A moment later, he corrects himself. “But they can come back. Hamas cannot rule the Gaza Strip forever.”


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01-06-2009, 05:33 AM
Post: #2
The clans of Gaza take on the men of Hamas
bump
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01-06-2009, 07:07 AM
Post: #3
The clans of Gaza take on the men of Hamas
Hilles... Never heard of them. Thanks for da new info.

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01-06-2009, 07:11 AM
Post: #4
The clans of Gaza take on the men of Hamas
no probs. What's your view on Hamas, MMG?
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01-06-2009, 07:50 AM
Post: #5
The clans of Gaza take on the men of Hamas
Lol Ive been thinking about that for the past few days. Peaceful negotiations with Israel isnt working right now, so I dont see Hamas as a "terrorist" group, being on the defense. That out of the way, I believe Hamas had great origins from a group of prisoners, but things got messy after they were martyred. As of now, Hamas doesnt have my support until their intentions are pure. Hamas is a political and military organization, and there are things good and bad from both. What are your views about Hamas Nik?


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01-06-2009, 08:04 AM (This post was last modified: 01-06-2009 08:09 AM by ---.)
Post: #6
The clans of Gaza take on the men of Hamas
I see them more as a paramilitary organisation than a political movement.. it's simplistic perhaps but I wish they had sent an accord out 2 weeks ago that anyone firing rockets into Israel would be severely punished. As I said at the time Israel would use it as a continuing pretense for attack and basically it is all we here from the politicians internationally now - 'hamas must stop the rockets' - they can ignore the disgusting actions of the IDF because of this clause.

I can't really say I have too much repsect for them at this time as it is my personal opinion that they weighed in favour of continuing military operations at a time that was grossly neglectful of trying to secure the safety of the civilians in Gaza. I think Roseanne Barr hits the nail on the head when she describes them as being comparative to the Bloods and Crips although her inference was different.

International pressure upon Israel to improve conditions and end the blockade of Gaza was at a growing momentum and that now seems to have broken down. Olmert knew that the Un was making moves and that an Israeli election was not far off - the 'best' course of action for him was to use the pretext of the rockets in order to launch this assault in attempts to destroy as much of the infrastructure in Gaza as possible and cripple Hamas.

I don't think they are a good leadership for the Palestinian people - but what do I know...
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01-06-2009, 08:17 AM (This post was last modified: 01-06-2009 08:18 AM by mastermg.)
Post: #7
The clans of Gaza take on the men of Hamas
They do lack in leadership, which is why most Palestinians are supporters of Fateh. Then again, Fateh under Abbas isnt doing too well, no one likes him. Most liked Arafat due to his leadership skills which gave Fateh a great reputation. Right now, I actually see Hamas doing better and gaining more trust than Fateh. However, ideally, I hope they would just unite under one government
and political goal.

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01-06-2009, 08:50 AM (This post was last modified: 01-06-2009 08:53 AM by ---.)
Post: #8
The clans of Gaza take on the men of Hamas
I read a research report once that had documented the history of suicide bombing in the Middle East, specifically relating to Israel and Palestine. The findings were controversial when they were published as the study found that contrary to popular belief the first and second wave of such attacks were by majority not commited by people of strong faith but instead by disenfranchised secularist unionists.. however as time went on the secularists were found to do this less and less with a corresponding rise in religious militants taking such measures. It wasn't clear as to whether secularists were found to be converting back to hardcore religion or not..nevertheless it was interesting challenged a lot of preconceived notions as to the history of contemporary Islamic militancy.

But it seems most secularists became active members of Fateh, no?

I imagined this was one of the difficulties of sharing a leadership - that one was essentially secularist whilst the other was deeply religious in it's core underpinnings and construction.
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01-06-2009, 09:16 AM
Post: #9
The clans of Gaza take on the men of Hamas
Yes Hamas is the one with religious roots and Fateh is the secular one (maybe why the US doesnt identify it as a terrorist government). About suicide bombing, im not entirely sure because many of them either just hated Israel, lived in depression due to the living conditions the Israelis have imposed on them, or thought that suicide bombing is religiously supported. Im not sure where these type of people ended up either.
Since one government is secular and the other religious oriented, they dont share the same perception of Israel, maybe why they cant get along.


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