Middle East

Gazans count cost of escalating violence

Wael Abu Awema
Image caption Wael Abu Awema says his children are living in fear of Israeli airstrikes

In a smoke-filled and cardamom coffee-infused cafe in Gaza City all the talk is of this week's violence.

"Why is Palestinian blood cheaper than Israeli blood?" asks Wael Abu Awema, a 40-year-old father of five.

There have been Israeli attacks on Gaza every day this week. At least 10 Palestinians have been killed, including at least four civilians, two of them children. More than 30 Palestinians have been injured.

"Of course we are worried. My kids are wetting themselves at night when they hear the Israeli air strikes," says Mr Abu Awema.

His eyes are bloodshot and red, as if he also might be losing sleep.

Every day too, Palestinian militants have fired rockets and mortars into Israel, causing danger, fear and anxiety for communities living in range of the strikes.

There is concern on both sides that there could be a further escalation after Wednesday's bomb attack in Jerusalem in which a British tourist was killed and more than 30 people were injured.

No militant group - including Hamas's military wing the Al Qassam Brigades - has said it carried out the bomb attack.

Mr Abu Awema tells me he is not a supporter of Hamas, the Islamist movement that governs in Gaza.

In fact he actively opposes them. He says he has sympathy for the civilians who were targeted in the Jerusalem bombing.

But he says Gazans are all too familiar with the anxiety caused by violence.

Civilians killed

On Wednesday, hours before the Jerusalem bombing, thousands of Palestinians attended the funerals of eight people killed in Israeli attacks.

Militants fired guns in the air as the bodies were carried from the main mosque in Gaza City.

Four of those who died were militants from the Islamic Jihad group. Israel says they had been involved in firing rockets across the border.

The other four were civilians killed by stray Israeli shelling on Tuesday evening.

They included an 11-year-old and a 16-year-old boy who had been playing football outside their home east of Gaza City when they died.

At least 12 others were injured in the attack, including eight children.

As night fell on Tuesday, the sound of ambulances could be heard racing through Gaza City carrying the wounded to Shifa Hospital.

Relatives screamed and wailed as blood-spattered children were brought into the emergency room.

Similar scenes were repeated at Jerusalem's Hadassah hospital after Wednesday's bomb attack.

Israel has said it regrets the death of Palestinian civilians. A spokeswoman for the Israeli Defence Force, Avital Liebervich, told me by telephone that Israeli forces were taking care not to cause civilian casualties.

She said Israel has been targeting militants, Hamas training facilities, smuggling tunnels and weapons factories.

This week, Abu Mohammed Dahlul showed me around what used to be his metal workshop in the Shaijayiah neighbourhood of Gaza City.

Image caption Abu Mohammed Dahlul's metal workshop in Gaza City bore the brunt of one Israeli raid

It was hit by an Israeli airstrike on Monday night.

Mr Dahlul walked me around the 3m (10ft) deep crater that now dominates his workplace. There was twisted metal everywhere and the remains of what used to be the roof.

He told me it was the third time the street which houses a number of factories had been hit in less than a year.

He said he was finished now and that the 30 people who worked for him would lose their jobs.

Mr Dahlul's workshop housed metal cutting equipment. I suggested to him that this could have been used to make weapons for Palestinian militants.

He denied this and said he has no connection with militant groups.

"If I ever see them come here in their tinted-windowed cars, I send them away," he tells me.

I have no way of knowing if Mr Dahlul is telling the truth. But if he is not, then he is a convincing liar.

Both Hamas and Israel have accused each other of escalating the violence.

Street protests

On Saturday, Hamas - unusually - said it was responsible for firing a barrage of mortars into Israel.

It was the most significant Hamas attack since operation Cast Lead - Israel's major offensive in Gaza which ended in January 2009. Then, more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed as well as 13 Israelis.

Previously, Hamas officials have said they were trying to rein in rocket fire from Gaza.

Hamas said it was responding to an Israeli air strike that killed two of its members.

But many people here have been asking why Hamas chose this moment to break what many have seen as an unofficial ceasefire.

"This is the big question," says Dr Mokahmer Abu Sada, who teaches politics at Al Azhar University in Gaza.

Image caption Missiles fired from Gaza have caused fear in Israeli towns and cities, including here in Beersheba

"I believe it was to distract attention away from the protests that have taken place in Gaza in the past few weeks," he says.

This month thousands of Palestinian demonstrators - inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa - have taken to the streets of Gaza calling for political unity between Hamas and its secular rival Fatah.

For more than four years the two factions have been politically and geographically divided, with Hamas in power in Gaza and Fatah running parts of the West Bank.

The split happened when violence erupted a year after Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006.

The protests in Gaza have been on a relatively small scale compared to elsewhere in the region, but Hamas has used force to break up some of the demonstrations.

"I think Hamas knows that an escalation with Israel will take attention away from these protests," says Dr Abu Sada.

He believes that Hamas is opposed to political reconciliation with Fatah and thinks an escalation in violence is the surest way to stop that happening.

Dr Abu Sada believes Israel too is against Palestinian reconciliation and wants an escalation for the same reason.

"I think it will be a limited escalation for a few weeks," he adds.

"But it is dangerous. It could get out of control. These things can quickly get out of hand."