Khan Yunis / Palestinians' Political Ping-pong Heats Up

Like every other coastal city, in Gaza City, too, the summer heat drives people to the beach. So it was not immediately apparent yesterday evening that the crowd on one part of the promenade was an organized one. Dozens of youths in uniform - pants, white T-shirts and baseball hats - had been recruited for a beach clean-up campaign. The yellow flags of the Shabiba, the Young Fatah organization, disclosed the group's political affiliation.

Everyone awaited the arrival of Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian Authority minister in charge of the "pullout portfolio" - or, as the purists say, "the evacuation portfolio." Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, it was said, was also due to appear. But then a rumor swept through the crowd that Dahlan would not come, and interest in the event plummeted. Some of the youngsters wore shirts bearing portraits of Arafat. "A message of victory and liberation," said the words accompanying them. Other shirts said: "Today Gaza, tomorrow the West Bank and Jerusalem."

Fatah is playing slogan ping-pong with Hamas. Hamas' street banners also speak of victory and liberation and a continued struggle, with no mention of territorial boundaries. Hamas is organizing military spectacles, some say horror spectacles. The PA and Fatah's rejoinder are popular mass events, which are televised both locally and abroad. Hamas presents itself as the spearhead of the armed resistance, which, it says, led to the victory, in the hope of reaping political rewards at the next election. The PA and Fatah were reluctant at first to call the disengagement a "withdrawal" or a "victory," concerned that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's intention was only to perpetuate Gaza's disconnection from the West Bank. But they were gradually swept into using the terms, so that Hamas would not "appropriate" the evacuation.

And so these two political forces, one on the descent and the other one on the rise, are competing with each other in Gaza. People are observing this from the side, waiting, with uncertainty. Who will win the race, and will their triumph lead to a bloody conflict?

At first glance, these events are reminiscent of the mass celebrations when the PA was first established. Then, too, Fatah led a variety of clean-up campaigns. Walls covered with graffiti and slogans were white-washed. Mass rallies were held. But the competition between the two entities does not hide one central fact: People are not feeling any real joy these days. Relief - yes. But not an uplifting of the spirit.

The cost is too great, one 70-year-old woman in a car dared to say. Demolished homes, sand where there once were vineyards. The settlement of Netzarim, which could be seen through the window. It was clear she did not accept the boasts of either Hamas or Fatah. And the 38-year-old driver, who kept quoting the Koran, said: "All this destruction is a punishment because people are not paying zakat [a percentage of income donated as charity]. Allah sent Ariel Sharon to punish those who don't give charity. Here, in Rafah, one farmer pays zakat - and Sharon's bulldozers didn't touch his land."