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How Palestinians view the militant groups that hold power in the Gaza Strip

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's head overseas now. After more violence in the Gaza Strip, Palestinians there are taking stock of the armed groups that hold so much sway over their lives. This month, Israel and Islamic Jihad traded fire for three days. Nearly 50 people died in Gaza. Militants and civilians, including some who Israel says were killed by Islamic Jihad rockets that went off course. But Hamas, the bigger party that actually governs Gaza, did not join in, and the fighting did not escalate further. NPR's Fatma Tanis talked with people in Gaza.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: On a balmy weekend night away from Gaza's waterfront, Ahmed is sitting at a park with his friends, sipping tea. He only gave me his first name to speak freely without reprisals from militant groups. It's completely dark out except for the occasional car headlights because of the severe power shortage here. Ahmed, like most in Gaza, still backs resistance to Israel. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad count on many loyal supporters. But criticism is growing among Palestinians like Ahmed, who faults Islamic Jihad for escalating the latest conflict in order to make a deal with Israel and free some of its prisoners.

AHMED: (Through translator) Where is the role of the people when these factions go to war? The people should have a say because we end up paying the price.

TANIS: Ahmed is also critical of Hamas, like many others, but he says he was glad to see the group stay out of the conflict this time, which helped bring a quick end to the fighting, though nearly 50 people were killed in Gaza.

AHMED: (Through translator) It's possible Hamas finally realized that that war brings nothing but destruction.

TANIS: Hamas now has been accused by some of abandoning Islamic Jihad as Israel targeted and killed two of its leaders and nearly 20 militants. Israel called the operation a success and said it had set back the group severely. Meanwhile, Islamic Jihad put out a statement last week calling for, quote, "unity among resistance groups," which is their official line - that the two groups are partners. But Gaza political analyst with local media Tholfikar Swairjo says the rivalry between the two groups has never been more obvious.

THOLFIKAR SWAIRJO: (Through translator) First of all, Hamas wants to protect its authority in the Gaza Strip. There's boiling anger in the streets against the Hamas movement. They are blamed for the very low quality of life in Gaza. And so now, they do not want to engage in any war that would increase the level of anger against them from the Palestinians.

TANIS: He says Hamas couldn't jeopardize recent understandings with Israel that would bring economic relief to Gaza. Thousands of Palestinians from Gaza are now allowed to work in Israel, and more goods and supplies can go in. But Swairjo says Islamic Jihad, the more extreme group, sees that as selling out.

SWAIRJO: (Through translator) Islamic Jihad say economic incentives that Israel has offered to Gaza has become a knife to the neck of the armed resistance.

TANIS: Another layer is their competition for supporters. Swairjo says Hamas has lost some of its recruiting momentum to Islamic Jihad. Unlike Hamas, which participates in elections and now governs, Islamic Jihad has no political ideology or even goals beyond fighting Israel. And that can attract a lot of different groups, from Islamists to seculars and leftists. But many ordinary Gazans see no difference between the two.

At a seaside terrace, Reham is smoking a water pipe known as hookah with friends. She says most Gazans have stopped believing in Hamas and the others.

REHAM: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: "The presence of the militant groups here is also threatening and divisive," she says. "They're often targets of Israeli airstrikes, and civilians who live near them can become casualties."

REHAM: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: She says no matter what, to expect stability in Gaza would be foolish.

REHAM: There is no guarantee for anything in Gaza. You don't know what, when and where and why the war happen.

TANIS: And when it happens, she says, no one is safe, regardless of politics.

Fatima Tanis, NPR News, Gaza City.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS SONG, "SCAR TISSUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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