Fatah by Day, Hamas by Night The Double Life of Abu Khaled

By day, he's a member of Fatah security forces. By night, he wages holy war with Hamas. With the two Palestinian groups fighting against each other these days, Abu Khaled's life has become a dangerous balance. If need be, he says, he would even kill his friends.

The private car heads north out of Gaza City. A rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire echoes through the side streets, belying what remains a fragile cease-fire between Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian Territories.

Both the driver and the guide are talking nervously into their mobile phones. Instructions are delivered, detours ordered, until finally the vehicle arrives in an empty street and pulls up next to one of Gaza's typical yellow taxi limousines with two rows of back seats. Motors running, the bulletproof vests are quickly loaded from the car into the taxi. The journey then continues in the Mercedes limousine -- until it reaches the end of the road, marked by the wall that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel.

It's cold and the sun is about to set into the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, sweat is running from under Abu Khaled's beard when he jumps into the taxi. Hardly surprising really. If the other soldiers he stands guard with at the gate of an abandoned military base knew his story, the lives of everyone in the taxi would be in danger.

By day, the 23-year-old serves in the Palestinian security forces, which are controlled by Fatah. When Abu Khaled's workday ends, though, he goes home, changes his uniform, pulls out his weapons and transforms himself into a fighter with the Qassam Brigades -- the military arm of Hamas. If his fellow Fatah security officers knew what he did at night, he says, "they would open fire on us immediately."

No wonder the situation in Gaza is so confusing

"We are not a rarity," says the fighter. He estimates that about 30 percent of the men who officially serve with the Palestinian security forces are secretly active members of militia groups with ties to Hamas -- armed men who change sides depending on the time of day. No wonder the situation in Gaza is so confusing. In most of the gun battles between Hamas and Fatah in recent days, it was almost impossible to tell who was shooting at whom, when they were shooting, and why. After each new incident, the barrage of back-and-forth accusations merely triggered the next shoot-out -- a spiral of violence that is difficult to stop.

As the taxi drives slowly through abandoned streets, Abu Khaled tells his story -- the story of a young man who sees no other choice but to fight the enemy any way he can. "The official forces are poorly trained and armed," he says. "They could never do much harm to the Israelis."

He's likely right. A visit to a Fatah training camp that morning was unconvincing. Although the camp's 50 recruits were able to perfectly recite Fatah's various slogans after three months of training, most were incapable of performing even the most rudimentary of combat maneuvers.

But Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has recognized Israel and is no longer interested in doing damage to the country. Indeed, it is the party's moderation which has made it a negotiating partner for the West and Israel. Hamas, on the other hand, remains dedicated to eliminating Israel and has yet to renounce violence. Over the years, it has been responsible for numerous suicide attacks on Israeli citizens and is considered a terrorist organization in the West.

Khaled says that even as a teenager he realized that the organizations affiliated with Fatah were "much too soft" to prevail against the Israelis. The Palestinians, he says, are prisoners in their own country. "The Israeli crimes have kindled my emotions and my passion." This passion prompted him to join the Qassam Brigades at 15 -- an early age for a fighter, but not unusual for many of the "converts," as he calls them. "The Islamic ideology is close to my heart and mind."

"Tanks attacked, rockets fired, mines laid"

He tells the driver to drive up and down a few more streets. Israeli cameras mounted on balloons hang over the wall and monitor their progress. It wouldn't be the first time a taxi was mistaken for a rocket launcher. "We expect the Israelis to attack at any time," says Abu Khaled. "They have broken cease-fires many times before."

He normally spends five nights a week with the Qassam Brigades, stationed at the border with Israel. "In the past few years, I have attacked Israeli tanks, fired rockets and grenades and laid mines," he says, listing his achievements. According to Khaled, the weapons are homemade; land mines, rocket launchers and even Kalashnikovs and ammunition are produced at Qassam's secret workshops in the Gaza Strip. The material, he says, is smuggled in from Egypt through tunnels or comes "from the Israeli mafia."

Four times, he says, he was almost hit by rocket attacks from Israeli drones; he was injured once in the head and once in the leg. His nighttime duties have been reduced to two nights a week since the cease-fire with Israel came into effect, finally allowing him to turn at least some of his attention to his studies. Khaled, who wants to become a journalist, enrolled in the Islamic University at the beginning of the year. "I would love to work in Hamas's press office."

For his mother's sake, he takes along a mobile phone at night

Though already 23, Abu Khaled doesn't have a family of his own. "I chose the armed path. I could be killed any time. It would be bad enough if my parents and my siblings had to suffer." His mother, he says, is already beside herself out of fear for his safety. He keeps a second mobile phone for her sake alone -- "so that she can call me at night, when I embark on jihad, holy war."

His seven siblings are proud of Khaled, the eldest, who commands a six-man combat unit. "The little ones are anxious to become Qassam fighters themselves. I'm the star of the family," says Abu Khaled, grinning. Financial concerns are partly responsible for the fact that he hasn't married yet. He received his last full pay nine months ago. He uses part of the money he occasionally receives for his daytime services to pay his membership dues in the Qassam Brigades. "It is an honor for us to be permitted to fight for Hamas. We give some our money so that the fight can continue."

In the past, Israel was the only enemy. But now the gun battles between rival Palestinian groups that are audible in the distance force Khaled to confront new problems. He spends his days with 15 other members of the Fatah security forces in the no man's land between the Israeli border and the last few houses in Beit Hanoun. The small unit would be an ideal target for rival militias on the hunt for Fatah supporters.

"It would be difficult for me to shoot them"

Khaled vehemently denies the possibility that the Qassam Brigades could attack his unit. "The Qassam Brigades never attack their brothers. We only defend ourselves." But the possibility has crossed his mind. "If we are attacked by the Qassam Brigades, I will identify myself and switch to their side."

It is a moral dilemma for Khaled, who feels a bond to his fellow members of the Fatah security forces, "as if they were my family. We cook together and spend the entire day talking. It would be difficult for me to shoot at them."

When asked what he would do were his fellow Fatah members to learn of his excursion with a journalist and realize his split loyalties, Khaled says: "I would try to escape."

And if that didn't work, he would kill friends, if necessary. "It has come to this in Palestine."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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