Security forces from rival Palestinian factions paraded through the streets of Gaza yesterday, sometimes within meters of one another, intensifying fears of a showdown between the heavily armed groups.
Bearded young men armed with AK-47s and dressed in military fatigues, part of a new 3,000-strong Hamas-backed force, held ground on many streets, while a bolstered police force loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas paraded nearby.
For residents of Gaza City, there was a mix of confusion and concern, with some unsure exactly which armed men were loyal to which faction, and whether the extra presence would mean greater security or an inevitable showdown between the groups.
"I wonder when the zero hour will come," one passerby said as he watched the two forces maneuver through Gaza City, referring to intensifying fears of all-out conflict.
For others there was confusion.
"Are you police or are you Hamas?" an elderly man asked gunmen as they moved down one street.
"We are the executive force," one bearded young man from Hamas replied, leaving 65-year-old Abu Ahmed none the wiser.
The Hamas-backed force, formed under the authority of Interior Minister Saeed Seyam, was deployed on Wednesday in a challenge to the authority of Abbas, whose Fatah movement was defeated by the Islamic militant group in elections in January.
In response, Abbas ordered the deployment of a bolstered, Fatah-loyal police force onto the streets, a show of force that was still taking place yesterday.
The decision marked the latest step in a deepening power struggle between Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, whose Hamas Islamic militant movement took power in March.
In parts of Gaza, members of the Hamas force stood within meters of regular policemen. At one point, hundreds of Fatah-loyal gunmen marched by as part of the training course. Hamas members stood in silence but showed no sign of responding.
"Force 17, Force 17," the men chanted.
Force 17 is an elite Palestinian security force loyal to Abbas.
The policemen were unarmed, but were followed by commanders in jeeps, their weapons raised.
"Jerusalem, the president, the homeland," the officers chanted, clapping and whistling.
General Suleiman Hilles, commander of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and Gaza, said in a statement that the forces were deployed to send a message that "the Palestinian police is the only side that can maintain law and order."
Hamas men said they had no intention of sparking clashes.
"We were deployed in accordance with the decision by the minister of interior," one Hamas commander said.
"Our mission is to assist the police to do their job in ending chaos and anarchy. We will not hesitate to do so," he said.
The rival displays come amid growing insecurity in Gaza, with at least five gunmen from Fatah and Hamas killed this month, and many more injured.
"We have become a people with two heads, Abbas and Haniyeh," Abu Ahmed said as he walked past the Hamas force.
"I really do not know whether those young men are a solution to the chaos or a recipe for war," he said.
Palestinian political analyst Hani Habib said residents' fears were real and legitimate.
"I am also worried that friction between the forces will lead Gaza towards catastrophe," he said.
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