Fatah Police Seize Gaza Baptist Church
Five Fatah police officers remain stationed on Gaza Baptist Church's sixth floor as a tense truce has brought at least momentary peace to the tiny strip of coast teetering on the brink of civil war.
Tuesday afternoon, fights between the secular Fatah party and its rival, the militant Islamic party Hamas, flared on Gaza's side of the Egyptian border as Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh passed through Rafah Crossing en route to reconciliation talks.
The 10-minute gun battle not only threatened to shatter the latest cease-fire but also trapped Hani Fazah, a Christian Gazan doctor and fiancé of prominent Gazan evangelical Rana Khoury (see "Love in the Land of Enmity," July 2005) in a bus at Rafah as he tried for a second day to enter Gaza for their imminent wedding.
These are the latest of many violent events since January 2006, when Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. Hanna Massad, pastor of Gaza Baptist Church, told Christianity Today that each round of Hamas-Fatah fighting ratchets up the bloodshed and lasts longer than the previous round. On January 28, Gaza Baptist's Awana club bus driver, Wasfi Khardish, 20, was walking down a street when a stray bullet pierced his heart, killing him instantly.
Late on February 2, Palestinian Authority (PA) police officers of Fatah demanded Gaza Baptist's building key from the church's lone guard. The guard, who had no key, informed church leaders, who refused to hand it over. Police then broke into the building, taking up positions on the sixth floor. The pastor was powerless to remove the police, who were using the rooftop as a watch post and sniper nest for fighting Hamas.
Police told Massad that taking over the church, which is directly across the street from the central police station, is vital for police security. Police also feared that, should they abandon the church, Hamas would take it over and launch attacks. Thus, despite a Sunday night cease-fire, police remain on the sixth floor, though they are permitting church members access to the building.
Massad acknowledged that police safety concerns are legitimate, but noted that Fatah has taken over the building once before and tried unsuccessfully other times since it was dedicated in November 2006. Last year, bullets destroyed at least a dozen windows. The facility includes the church's sanctuary, Gaza's only Christian library, a guest hostel, and one of two mammogram clinics in Gaza (population 1.4 million).
A Sunday cease-fire ended four days of violence in which at least 30 were killed and 200 injured. Massad's wife, Suhad, said that she heard gunfire Monday morning but that Tuesday was quietso far. Gazans are venturing outdoors for the first time in days.
While Gazans try to return to normalcy, "they're still watching, not sure if things will go back like it was or if things will improve," Massad said. "Many, many, many people are paying the price in Gaza." Elderly Gazans have told him that Gaza's present situation is worse than what civilians endured in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Massad said that differing political visions between secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas are the root of ongoing turmoil after the election that ended almost four decades of Fatah's political dominance in Palestine. Much of the international community is putting external pressure on Hamas to renounce terrorism.
All this translates into suffering for ordinary Gazans who support neither faction, Massad said. "In the end, the people are the ones who are really stuck in the middle," he said. "The people pay the price."