Two years ago, the Egyptian security envoy in Gaza told me that if there were a military confrontation, Hamas could easily defeat the predominantly Fatah security forces and take over all of Gaza in three days. "I've seen both sides," he said, "and it is clear that Hamas scores much higher in five areas: leadership, discipline, training, arms and, most important, the motivation." He said the security forces would be hobbled by being stationed in buildings, while Hamas fighters would be able to hit and run. To the shock of the terrified population of Gaza, that's exactly what happened last week. An Israeli military analyst said the Palestinian Authority forces were like a paper tiger.
I went on a tour Sunday morning. Gaza was wearily quiet and people were bewildered. An old man said to me, "Okay, they destroyed the corrupt. We welcome that. Can they feed us now?" I saw what was left of the looted home of Mohammed Dahlan, commander of Gaza's preventive security service, and of the beach chalets that were used for training his new recruits.
My family and I had spent several traumatic days and sleepless nights, trying to find a safe corner in the house as the shooting and shelling raged around us. My baby son was with his grandparents when the fighting erupted and we could not bring him home or even see him until it subsided. The most alarming thing was the inhuman treatment of those who were captured: One man was tied and thrown from the 10th floor of a building; some injured fighters were killed in their hospital beds; and stories of insane torture were numerous and horrific.
It's not easy to explain what has happened here and why. On the surface, it looks like a power struggle that grew out of the U.S.-led blockade of the Hamas government and even to efforts at forging a Hamas-Palestine Liberation Organization unity government.
The siege imposed on the Palestinians has been biting. Poverty has reached unprecedented levels, along with unemployment. According to the World Bank, 60 per cent of Palestinians live on less than $2 a day. Israel, which is in full control of all Gaza borders and its sea coast, intensified the blockade by curtailing Palestinians' movement. At times, even fishing has been prohibited.
Already overcrowded, lawlessness became rampant in Gaza. Kidnapping, theft and armed robbery have frightened everyone. Last week, my brother's car was taken away at gunpoint. Many people have been forced to surrender their wallets or cellphones. Beggars roam the streets asking for money or bread. For more than 18 months, civil servants did not receive a salary, only parts of it every now and then. Municipal workers were given a bag of bread every day instead of their wages.
The explosion was bound to happen, and the last straw came when the interior minister declared that he could not fulfill his duties and resigned. He blamed the obstructive attitude of Fatah's director of preventive security.
Of course, Palestinian affairs are not purely Palestinian. The big players are in Washington, Tehran and Tel Aviv. It seems to us that the U.S. and Iran are fighting their war in Gaza, and in Lebanon and Iraq.
But this situation is more than just a power struggle. It stems from the absence in Palestine of a culture of democracy and the rule of law.
Emerging in the mid-1990s from Israel's occupation, we Gazans dreamed of a new era. Instead, our Palestinian Authority continued the culture of the gun. This culture is based on loyalty, secrecy and decisively rooting out opponents. There is no regard for human rights or the rule of law or even human life itself.
What began in the name of resistance to the Israeli occupation became worse during Yasser Arafat's years in power. Many times, I was confronted and even jailed by officials of the security forces - people who had once been in the resistance but showed no understanding of the seriousness of torture and abuse of the law.
The culture of the gun is contagious. Armed people exhibit a euphoric and self-confident image as the gun in their hands compensates for inner impotence. In the face of defeat and humiliation against the powerful outside enemy, people look for smaller enemies they can win over. The armed militia leader becomes the new model, the symbol of power who can kill at will and torture others without a hint of remorse.
As the dream of an independent Palestine fades - the result of Israel's continuing grab of West Bank land and the anarchy of Gaza - we now imagine the nightmares that may come next. Will there be three states instead of two: Israel, the West Bank and Gaza? Will there only be one? Will Gaza become an even more extreme place than it is now?
Palestinians are bitterly divided in politics and in geography, as the emergency cabinet sits and operates in the West Bank, while the Hamas-led government sits and operates in Gaza. Separating our two territories was one of the objectives of Ariel Sharon's plan of unilateral withdrawal. The tragic irony is that Palestinian leaders have only served to further the Sharon plan, and to de-legitimate our claim to self-government.
The only solution is a government that is made up of neutral people of integrity who advocate peace negotiations with Israel but insist on keeping Palestine intact.
Eyad Sarraj received the 1997 Physicians for Human Rights Award and the 1998 Martin Ennals Award for human-rights defenders.
Director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program