Compensation for victims of Hamas-Fatah fighting could cost $150 million, take years to settle

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Foes Hamas and Fatah managed to set aside some of their differences to form a Palestinian unity government, but the hardest part of reconciliation may still lie ahead — settling demands of justice for hundreds killed and wounded in fighting that culminated in the 2007 Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip.

The emotional issue weighs on attempts to share power in Gaza after seven years of sole Hamas rule. A reconciliation commission is to review each case and award compensation, but possible violence by those seeking revenge instead could threaten re-integration in the Mediterranean coastal territory.

The commission would need at least two years and $150 million to review and settle any claims, said panel member Ashraf Jumma, a Fatah legislator. But for the moment, it has no funding at all, he said.

And not all are ready to accept a resolution.

"I don't want compensation ... I want punishment," said Hamza Rafati, the 22-year-old son of a slain Hamas preacher. In May 2007, he said, his father Mohammed was dragged from the family's Gaza City home by Fatah-affiliated security men and shot in the head in the street.

A Hamas court later convicted three men in the killing and sentenced them to death. Rafati is concerned those sentences might be commuted. He said his family does not want to become victims again by "losing our right to legal revenge after unity."

The bloodiest chapter of the long-running political rivalry began after January 2006 parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza, in which the Islamic militant Hamas trounced the Fatah movement of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, until then the dominant political movement.

The handover of power was bumpy, in part because Fatah refused to accept defeat. For months after, Hamas fighters and Fatah-allied security forces exchanged fire in crowded neighborhoods of Gaza, abducted the other's supporters and in two particularly brutal back-to-back episodes each threw a rival to his death from a rooftop.

Finally, Hamas fighters overran Gaza. Thousands of Fatah loyalists fled, many to the West Bank. In the 18 months between the parliament elections and the takeover, 375 people were killed — including 19 children and 18 women — and 1,940 people wounded, according to the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. The group did not have a factional breakdown of the deaths.

Emad Zanoun, 55, lost his son Alaa Eldin, a lieutenant in the Fatah-allied security forces, on June 12, 2007, just two days before the last Fatah fighters surrendered.

Alaa Eldin, then 23, left home in Gaza City's Zeitoun neighborhood in the afternoon and headed to his unit's headquarters when his jeep came under heavy fire, said his father. He ran for cover but was shot to death.

Seven years later, the pain is still fresh.

"No one can imagine the sadness in our hearts," said Zanoun who, along with his wife Rawda, has been raising their two young granddaughters because Alaa Eldin's wife remarried after his death. The girls, Farah and Rawda, now 10 and nine, cling to their grandmother, calling her "mom."

Still, Zanoun and his wife said they are ready to forgive, urging others in a Facebook campaign to follow their example.

"Revenge will not bring him back alive, and division might bring us more sadness," said Rawda Zanoun.

A generous spirit might not be enough, though, in a traditional society that is still largely governed by tribal rules on settling disputes. In cases of killings, those rules require either a price exacted in blood, through revenge killings, or compensation negotiated by elders.

The reconciliation commission is supposed to step in and determine settlements instead of leaving it up to families to settle scores.

The violence's unresolved legacy is just one of many points of potential conflict after Monday's formation of the unity government of 17 technocrats.

Since 2007, each faction ran its own government — Hamas in Gaza and Abbas in autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Hamas hired 40,000 public employees after 2007 while Abbas' loyalists in the Gaza administration stopped going to their jobs, though they continued to draw their wages. Now it is unclear who will pay the salaries of the Hamas-hired employees.

The split runs deep through society, dividing families and fostering suspicion and resentment among neighbors.

"The division overshadowed all walks of life, first and foremost the social life," said Ismail Radwan, a Hamas member of the reconciliation panel. "It will be a hard task but all Palestinians are determined to end this chapter of their history."

Some Fatah supporters who fled Gaza after 2007 have since returned. Among them are 90 former officers in the Fatah-allied security forces who responded to a previous pre-unity promise of amnesty by Hamas for all those not involved in violence.

However, dozens have been convicted by Hamas courts in absentia since 2007 for their alleged role in killings and could still face arrest upon their return.

A former local Fatah commander, Arafat Abu Shabab, 38, was detained by Hamas security this week when he came back to Gaza from seven years of exile in Egypt.

Interior Ministry spokesman Iyad al-Bozum said there was an outstanding arrest warrant against Abu Shabab for alleged involvement in violence. He added that Abu Shabab was in custody, in part, to avoid vigilante justice "if the families of his victims find him."

The reconciliation commission will also handle cases of those tried in absentia. They would be pardoned if the families of their victims accept compensation or face a new trial if a money offer is rejected.

Rawda Zanoun, 50, said it's now up to everyone to make reconciliation work.

"I'm looking at my granddaughters and thinking of their future and the future of the other families," she said. "If we forgive, this will lead to social unity which is more important than political unity."