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Quiet returned to the streets of Gaza all at once this week - a quiet that the Strip's residents had not experienced for more than two decades, since the first intifada began. Within a few days, after its clashes with Fatah ended in a decisive victory for Hamas, the Islamic movement managed to do the incredible: It ended the chaos in Gaza. The descriptions provided by residents and local and foreign journalists sound almost inconceivable: The gunmen (not members of Hamas) have disappeared from the streets, apparently due to a fear of the Hamas Executive Force.

And now that the movement has banned people from masking their faces, that phenomenon has also ceased to exist. Members of the Public Order - a new force established by Hamas to deal with urgent civil matters - now stand guard at intersections. They are dressed in civilian clothes, identifiable only by the word "Hamas" emblazoned on the backs of their yellow shirts. Their primary task: maintaining the flow of traffic. They're basically Hamas traffic cops, but they're backed up by the armed Executive Force, with whom no one dares to argue. Force members also examine vehicle in the streets and confiscate those suspected of being stolen.

At the same time, Iz a-Din al-Kassam, the Hamas military wing, is constantly searching the homes of suspects. They collect the weapons of members of the Palestinian security services and respond to the actions of the armed clans. They have also promised a resolution to the abduction of BBC journalist Alan Johnston. The Durmush clan, which is holding Johnston, is the last bastion of opposition to Hamas in Gaza.

The Public Order force, meanwhile, spent part of this week supervising the matriculation exams in Gaza schools, and it has prohibited merchants from raising prices indiscriminately, according to F., who used to serve as a senior officer in a Fatah security force. Though not a Hamas sympathizer, F. says Gaza has become much safer for its residents since the movement's takeover. "I haven't felt this secure in many years," he says. "The situation here is even better than excellent from the security perspective. For years, I used to smoke a hookah in cafes. Over the last few months, though, I didn't dare leave the house after dark. Now I can go out again, even at 2 A.M."

But there is, of course, a caveat. "The problem is that our economic future looks bleak," F. continues. "It's not clear where we're going or how the strip will look. Will Israel leave the border crossings closed or open them? If the blockade continues, people will die here from the food shortage."

Hysteria has dissipated

Even those who were trying to get out of Gaza last week have relaxed a bit since then. "I'm still pessimistic, but the hysteria has disappeared," says A., a Palestinian man in his 40s. "I thought there wouldn't be any water or electricity, and now, it's not that the situation is great, but everything is continuing to function."

Like Gaza's residents, Hamas too is worried by the possibility that Israel will close the border crossings. But when Israeli and international human rights groups started worrying this week over the possibility that food supplies in Gaza could run out within a month, Hamas realized that the Israeli government would not be able to sit back and allow for the starvation of more than 1.3 million Palestinians. Surprisingly, Hamas also agreed to let private Palestinian groups maintain all the existing arrangements at the crossings; the groups will operate in accordance with security rules set by Israel. But all this doesn't mean that Hamas has given up fighting Israel.

"Hamas will act against Israel, inevitably," predicts Salah Bardawil, one of the movement's leaders in Gaza. "If you continue to oppress us economically or security-wise, it will only result in a reaction on our part, and no one will benefit from that. Our goal is to stabilize the internal situation in the Strip and to resolve the residents' troubles. We also do not oppose Israel's decision to allow the passage of [some Gaza] residents to the West Bank. We won't hold anyone here by force."

If the improved security situation described by Gaza residents is maintained, Israel is likely to encounter a problem that is opposite to the one it faced at the Erez crossing on the Gaza-Israel border this week: West Bank residents will start trying to go to Gaza. In the meantime, Fatah isn't worried about its ability to cope with Hamas in the West Bank, and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas rushed this week to rule out any negotiations with the other side. But if Israel opens the Gaza border crossings, West Bank residents who witness increasing internecine violence are liable to get jealous of their Palestinian brothers in Gaza who are living under Hamas rule.

For now, at least, Fatah has not altered its behavior. Even the serious blow it sustained in its clashes with Hamas in Gaza, and its concern for the future of the West Bank, have not managed to suppress the internal backstabbing in Fatah. This week most of its leaders in the West Bank were more concerned with how to depose Mohammed Dahlan than how to defeat Hamas. Even Dahlan's supporters from Gaza who came over to Ramallah preferred to vilify their critics in Fatah (including Jibril Rajoub and Marwan Barghouti) rather than to examine the mistakes they had made.

Staying alive

The near-perfect public order that reigned in Gaza this week can be attributed, at least in part, to the fear Hamas struck into residents' hearts last week, during the Strip's civil war. Testimony collected from the days of fighting indicates that Hamas imposed a methodical system of terror and scare tactics intended to deter, shock and frighten Fatah operatives and Gaza residents in general.

It began on a Monday 11 days ago, when a Fatah man was tossed off a multi-story building in the Strip; it subsequently came to light that Hamas operatives managed to shoot him in the legs before throwing him to his death. Although this method was used on only one other Fatah operative, it had the desired effect and became the talk of the town. A number of Fatah leaders, who knew that their names appeared on Hamas hit lists, decided to make their exit, with some heading to Ramallah and others crossing into Egypt.

"It's very easy to criticize the senior officials who disappeared," says a Gazan journalist. "But you have to remember that they wanted to stay alive. People had already tried to assassinate them in the past and they knew that Hamas wanted their heads. Someone like that wants to survive."

Hamas was not using a random hit list. Every Hamas patrol carried with it a laptop containing a list of Fatah operatives in Gaza, and an identity number and a star appeared next to each name. A red star meant the operative was to be executed and a blue one meant he was to be shot in the legs - a special, cruel tactic developed by Hamas, in which the shot is fired from the back of the knee so that the kneecap is shattered when the bullet exits the other side. A black star signaled arrest, and no star meant that the Fatah member was to be beaten and released. Hamas patrols took the list with them to hospitals, where they searched for wounded Fatah officials, some of whom they beat up and some of whom they abducted.

Aside from assassinating Fatah officials, Hamas also killed innocent Palestinians, with the intention of deterring the large clans from confronting the organization. Thus it was that 10 days ago, after an hours-long gun battle that ended with Hamas overpowering the Bakr clan from the Shati refugee camp - known as a large, well-armed and dangerous family that supports Fatah - the Hamas military wing removed all the family members from their compound and lined them up against a wall. Militants selected a 14-year-old girl, two women aged 19 and 75, and two elderly men, and shot them to death in cold blood to send a message to all the armed clans of Gaza.