Few Gazans turn in weapons as Hamas deadline for arms collection expires
Hamas threatens harsh punishment for those who keep arms; analysts estimate there are 400,000 guns in Gaza.
Few Gazans turned in their weapons on Thursday, as a Hamas deadline for arms collection expired and the group threatened harsh punishment for those who kept their guns stashed at home.
In chaotic Gaza, where defeated Fatah militants are hiding in their homes in fear of retribution and clan grudges can flare into open warfare at any moment, few believe Hamas will recover even a fraction of the estimated 400,000 firearms - nearly one for every three residents of Gaza.
Some Fatah fighters said they removed their weapons from their houses so Hamas gunmen would not find them when they conducted searches. Some hid their weapons in holes in the ground. One man said he buried his weapon beneath the family chicken coop. Others said they threw their rifles into the sea, rather than risk having them fall into Hamas hands.
"I prefer to shoot myself rather than give them my gun," said a 33-year-old Fatah-affiliated security officer who gave his name only as Abu Subhi for fear of retaliation. "I don't trust them at all."
Hamas has, however, scored a major success in securing most of the weapons of the routed security forces, most of which were loyal to Fatah, Hamas and analysts said.
As it took over Gaza last week, Hamas secured the weapons stored in the security headquarters and using lists of the security officers, went to their homes to collect their weapons.
"It looks to us that Hamas has succeeded in collecting the majority of the registered weapons that belong to the Palestinian security forces," said Hazem Abu Shanab, a Gaza-based political analyst.
Jamal al-Jarrah, commander of the Hamas militant known as the Executive Force, said Hamas had collected 90 percent of the security forces' weapons with relative ease and had secured the weapons in security compounds pending a settlement to the Palestinians' political crisis.
The security forces weapons account for only 15,000 of the 400,000 weapons inside Gaza, analysts and former security officials said.
A measure of the difficulty of disarming the myriad private gangs came over the weekend in the southern city of Khan Yunis, where Hamas forces waged a 5-hour battle, complete with mortars and automatic weapons, against a clan known for drug smuggling. Two people were killed, but Hamas came away with only a fifth of the family's arsenal, a Hamas official said.
But with the Palestinian Authority resisting U.S. and Israeli demands for years that it confiscate weapons and take control of Gaza and the West Bank, even Hamas' limited achievement is viewed as important.
"Frankly, Hamas has succeeded in collecting a large number of weapons, which the Palestinian Authority has never succeeded in doing," Abu Shanab said.
As part of its weapons collection campaign, Hamas sent cars with loudspeakers into the streets and made announcements from mosques, warning security officials not to keep their weapons. They called them at home asking for their weapons and asked tribal leaders to negotiate a weapons handover.
They set up seven sites around Gaza City for people to drop off their weapons. At Shafei mosque in eastern Gaza City on Thursday, a group of young boys eagerly waited in the courtyard with a scrap paper, a pencil and a Quran, at a reception table to collect guns or looted government property. All they got was a metal door, a window frame, a faucet and a pocket knife.
Hamas said it was only interested in collecting the weapons that might be used against it, and said it would not touch weapons used for fighting Israel.
"Only those with clean hands should carry weapons. All the organizations that are using these guns to defend themselves against the occupation will be welcomed and supported," the deposed Hamas foreign minister Mahmoud Zahar told The Associated Press. "But if people used guns to cause strife between families or to attack the official and unofficial institutions, they will be collected."
Hamas' mission has been made far more difficult by the rampant weapons smuggling through tunnels that run under the Egyptian border, the source of much of Hamas' own arsenal.
Also, many powerful clans have formed their own heavily armed militias with firepower and training that rival the official security forces.
Last weekend, Hamas militants fought in the narrow alleys of the southern town of Khan Yunis with members of a large clan that was known for supporting Fatah. Hamas laid siege to the clan's compound, lifting it only when a clan leader agreed to hand over their weapons, said a security officer from the clan who gave his name only as Abu Mohammed for fear of retribution.
The clan eventually turned over five rifles and a handgun. When asked if that was the family's whole arsenal, Abu Mohammed answered with a grin.