In a grove of date palms in the center of this Gaza Strip city, Palestinian gunmen contemplate their future.
It is 4 p.m., when thirst and the ache for a cigarette following the day's Ramadan fast are at their height. A cellphone rings and bears the news that dozens have been wounded in a suicide bombing in Hadera. The six members of the Fatah-linked Aksa Martyrs Brigades register the information and move on, talking about their own "resistance" against Israel.
The world may have thought otherwise, but in the warrens of Gaza's refugee camps the war against Israel is very much still on. The Palestinian Authority announced on Sunday that it planned to disarm the Brigades and absorb its members into the PA security forces, but these gunmen seem anything but ready to disarm.
The IDF and Gaza-based terrorist groups had exchanged frequent fire since Israel quit the Gaza Strip six weeks ago. But over the past week, the groups amplified their rallying cries against Israel and even the Palestinian Authority. Hamas publicly reiterated its dreams of creating an Islamic state between the Jordan and the sea, and Islamic Jihad pressed forward with terrorist attacks and vowed more.
The Aksa Martyrs Brigades would not be outdone. In an interview in an orchard, Hassan Abu Ali, the group's commander here, claimed that the brigades have developed a new rocket, the Aksa-3. These rockets have a maximum range of 17 km., he tells The Jerusalem Post.
The IDF would not comment directly, but outgoing OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel was quoted on Thursday saying that "Ashkelon [nine km. from the northernmost edge of Gaza] is already within range... It is now not a question of range, but of deterrence."
What had started with stones, then moved on to guns and suicide bombers, has graduated to rockets, the wave of the future, claimed Abu Ali. He said his group had recently tested an unarmed prototype of the Aksa-3 along the Gaza beach.
Often, launching the missiles is more costly than dispatching suicide bombers, Abu Ali said. More of his men have been hospitalized unleashing the erratic rockets than Israelis on the receiving end. And dozens more have been killed in Israeli reprisals.
Palestinian mortarmen have yet to target Ashkelon, and given the likely Israeli response, might never do so. During the interview, an F-16 swooped low, breaking the sound barrier with a jarring boom. The militiamen shifted uneasily in their plastic chairs.
They would happily retire, said the group's Gaza spokesman, who identified himself as Abu Mustafa, once Israel leaves all of the West Bank and Jerusalem. "Retaliation will come from Gaza if the West Bank is attacked," he said. "[Palestine] is one homeland."
Echoing the complaints of many Palestinians, Abu Mustafa dubbed Israel's much-lauded withdrawal a "trick" that has turned Gaza into "a large prison, with no way in or out."
Palestinian public opinion supports the retirement of all gunmen not under PA command. A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion showed that more than 80 percent opposed the blatant use of force by "militants," what the poll called security chaos and "the multi-authority society."
PCPO director Dr. Nabil Kukali observed that "all these groups want to get across their mujahideen bona fides" before the January 25 Palestinian Legislative Council elections. While the terrorist groups grandstand, the Palestinian street remains silent. Kukali said that to "protect themselves they haven't demanded that this activity cease."
A brainchild of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and others, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades were Fatah's answer to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But Israel's incursions into the West Bank and Gaza knocked out the group's infrastructure, often leaving smaller factions not only to fend for themselves but, more dangerously, make their own decisions.
Today, they might pose the biggest challenge to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. If Abbas cannot control his party's own militia, Gazans ask, how can he control anything else?
Explaining his group's periodic mutinies against the PA, Abu Ali noted that "conventional sit-ins and flag waving no longer work, so the [fighters] have chosen other ways" to catch their leader's attention. In Gaza, Khan Yunis specifically, disgruntled gunmen are in the habit of taking Western hostages when they want to remind the PA that they remain jobless.
Through various types of protest, some 40 percent of Fatah gunmen secured jobs with the PA, said Abu Mustafa proudly. Pollster Kukali agreed that the single most important issue right now for all Palestinians is not fighting Israel "but finding work."
Everyone in Gaza seems to condemn the kidnappings, but then explain that the men need jobs.
Col. Ali Rahajan of the PA Preventive Security Service, currently tasked with security in the former settlements, said that "everything is being done to create a sense of security," and that the "kidnappings will not happen again."
But winning the loyalty of the militiamen may not be as easy as doling out the NIS 1,600 monthly salary allotted to PA policemen.
"If Abu Mazen [Abbas] ensures our involvement in the PA, and ensures our rights, then we are with Abu Mazen," Abu Mustafa said. Those rights, he noted almost as a caveat, are the right to carry arms and fight Israel when they see fit.
Sensitive to the public's fatigue and the effects of the IDF's constant pressure, the brigades have issued a leaflet explaining their reasons for firing rockets. According to Abu Ali, the leaflet explains the necessity "of terrorizing an entire city like Sderot." Otherwise, the people "might misunderstand us," he said.