By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Escalating tension between Islamist group Hamas and its Western-backed rival Fatah has pushed their "unity" government to the brink of collapse, harming efforts to rebuild the Gaza Strip and complicating Palestinian statehood ambitions.
Five months after a devastating war with Israel, Gaza's residents are still occasionally jolted by explosions. But the blasts now are more often the result of the internal conflict tearing at the fabric of Palestinian politics.
Hamas, which seized Gaza in a brief civil war in 2007, remains the dominant force in the territory - even after it agreed last June to a "reconciliation government" that would assert control and oversee post-war reconstruction.
That government's inability to fully carry out its work has stalled rebuilding in Gaza, where around 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in the war, and undermined a Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations.
In recent weeks the Hamas-Fatah stand-off has spiraled into violence, although it is not always clear who is behind it. On Friday, bombs exploded at a major Gaza bank used by the unity government to pay most of the 70,000 public sector workers hired before Hamas took over the narrow, coastal enclave.
At the weekend, pictures emerged of Fatah activists in Gaza who said they had been stripped, beaten and left in freezing temperatures by Hamas security men. Hamas, meanwhile, accuses Fatah of rounding up its party members in the West Bank, where the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) prevails.
"Whenever Hamas is with its back against the wall, it reacts with some fighting," said Mattia Toaldo, a Middle East expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, although he described that as a worst-case scenario that remained unlikely for now.
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who is based in the West Bank, says his technocrat government cannot begin to administer Gaza until Hamas fully relinquishes control, including over border crossings with Egypt and Israel.
But there is no sign of that happening.
For its part, Hamas accuses Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads Fatah and controls the PA budget, of trying to throttle the group into submission, including by refusing to pay its 50,000 public-sector employees.
"Abbas must first show solidarity with his own people, whom he deprives of salaries and rebuilding," said Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official. The Islamist group has also lambasted Abbas for not visiting Gaza since the war with Israel.
The upshot is that the Palestinians are now as polarized as ever, with Hamas overseeing Gaza and its 1.8 million people, while Fatah is in charge in the West Bank, just 60 km (40 miles) to the northeast, where 2.8 million live.
Foreign governments that last October contributed $5.4 billion to a fund for the Palestinians, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and others in Europe, have indicated that they cannot fully follow through on their commitments until the unity government is in charge as a single authority.
The risk for Hamas is that if it gives up power now it may not regain it - while it won the last Palestinian elections in 2006, there are no signs of a new vote being held.
For Fatah, if it does not exert itself via the Palestinian Authority, it cannot hope to be taken seriously by the rest of the world as it prepares to join the International Criminal Court and make another statehood attempt at the United Nations.
What is more, even if that bid makes progress, opinion polls show Hamas will win the next elections, whenever they are held, greatly complicating the statehood agenda.
Hamas is formally sworn to Israel's destruction and opposes the PA's independence strategy because it would not mean a state in all of historic Palestine and it believes critical issues, such as the right of return for refugees, are not included.
Hani al-Masri, an independent political analyst based in the West Bank, worries that if the Hamas-Fatah tensions are not reined in, the results could be devastating, especially for the people of Gaza, desperate to rebuild their lives after the war.
"It might lead to unrest and bring closer the moment of a potential explosion that neither Hamas nor anybody else could contain, and could even spread to the West Bank," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Luke Baker; Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Mark Heinrich)