Fighters set up checkpoints around
Gaza on Wednesday [Laila El Haddad]

Gaza was turned into a virtual ghost town with residents hiding in fear as Hamas and Fatah fighters battled in the worst violence to date since they agreed to share power.

Shopkeepers closed their stores and schoolchildren and university students stayed home as the fighting continued.

Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising from buildings that had been set on fire and the Islamic University was attacked wtih mortars.

Virtually all Gaza's residents have been penned indoors for more two days now.

The few shopkeepers who did elect to stay open said they were harassed by armed men and forced to close shop.

Abu Mohammad El-Khodary owns a small supermarket in the Remal neighbourhood of the City, one of the most heavily affected areas in Wednesday's fighting.

"I don't understand what are they fighting over - the trash piling up in the streets?" he chided, in reference to the piles of accumulated rubbish that remain uncollected amid a week-long municipality protest.

"We all know what's going to happen next," he continued.

"Government officials will convene with the military commanders, and ask them to show restraint. The gunmen will withdraw from the streets. And for a few more weeks, things will be calm again. We're in a maelstrom and I can't really see a way out."

Checkpoints

Many residents flocked to bakeries yesterday to stock up on bread.

Streets were barricaded and masked gunmen set up dozens of impromptu checkpoints on major roads linking the city to the north and south of the Strip. 

They stopped and searched the few vehicles that dared to move around and checked drivers' and passengers' identities.

Some witnesses complained that bearded mean and veiled women were specifically being targeted by Fatah forces.

Electricity cables were severed in two major Gaza City neighbourhoods, plunging them into darkness.

Unidentified snipers took positions in populated high-rise towers, including a building housing the offices of Aljazeera, terrorising residents and leaving them trapped in their homes and offices. 

Buildings on fire

One woman, 42-year-old mother-of-seven Um Muntasir, said her children and her were trapped in the kitchen of their ninth floor flat for two days after being separated from her husband, who was left trapped in central Gaza.

"We just want to seek shelter and safety, but we are not even being allowed to leave our building, and ambulances which get close by are being shot at," she told Aljazeera.net

"The situation is very bad ... our building is on fire, and grenades and bullets are exploding and flying left and right. Children have been injured. My youngest child passed out from the smoke inhalation."

Um Muntasir said armed men searched apartments for armed men and set fire to several flats.

"We have been living in our kitchen for the past two days, and we've had no electricity from the morning. We are human beings, what's our fault in all this? What should I do? What can I do?" she asked.

The World Health Organisation said staff at Gaza's main Shifa hospital were concerned over declining blood stocks as casualties mounted on Wednesday. 

X-ray film is also reported to be in short supply.

Source: Al Jazeera