Hamas banner, Gaza City, July 24, 2007
The last time I was in Gaza, a Palestinian Authority armored personnel carrier parked on the corner outside my apartment building spent day and night firing its .50 caliber machine gun to ward off Hamas attacks.
The city was cordoned off by rival masked gunmen. Mortars and bullets whizzed by us in the streets as Hamas took military control of the Gaza Strip.
Today, members of Fatah's presidential guard joined a member of the Hamas executive force (all of them cousins) under a beach umbrella by the Mediterranean.
An unusual calm has swept over Gaza. Though the conflict is never far away.
And, sometimes, it can still get a little too close.
We spent the day talking with Fatah and Hamas members who agree that Hamas has brought relative safety to the streets.
Family clashes have come to an end. The bombing of Internet cafes has stopped. And, following the release of kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston, the threat of kidnappings has dropped off dramatically.
Hamas has even hung new green banners in the streets of Gaza City to drive home the point: "No more threat for our foreign visitors and guests - Hamas."
But the conflict always has a way of making itself felt.
Today, an Israeli missile strike served as a rattling reminder of what difference a few yards can make.
This afternoon, while we were interviewing an 11-year-old cast member on a Hamas television show, a deafening blast shook the building. Knowing that Israel had targeted the Hezbollah television station in Beirut during last summer's war, I wondered if the Israeli military was now targeting its Hamas counterpart.
We joined the girl and the rest of the staff in rushing out of the building to find out what happened.
But the missile missed and instead slammed into a three-story apartment building.
The strike left a foot-diameter hole in the ceiling of an empty bedroom and shattered the rooftop concrete wall, (see photos at right) but did little more damage.
Though there were no serious injuries, the strike is a good example of the risks of what is usually dubbed a targeted assassination or surgical strike. Israel says it takes pains to minimize the number of innocent lives it places in danger when it tries to kill militants in air strikes. And the small amount of damage caused by this strike indicates that Israel use a missile with a relatively small amount of explosives.
But this strike, like others before it, missed. In this busy neighborhood, it very easily could have killed an innocent child sleeping in the bedroom, or a farmer taking his grapes to the market on his donkey cart, or a kid playing in the street.
When its air strikes kill innocent civilians, Israel places the blame on the the Palestinian militants and says it wouldn't launch such strikes if the miliants would stop firing rudiamentary rockets into southern Israel.
Targeted assassinations are a regular subject of debate here. The Israeli military once hired an ethicist and mathematician to try and come up with a formula it could use to weigh innocent lives against the value of the target. As you might imagine, creating such a formula proved to be controversial and virtually impossible.
The very notion of reducing human lives to numbers and formulas is always a bit jarring, even though it happens all the time.
Earlier in the day, we interviewed the member of a large Gaza Strip family, the Khafarnas, that has been involved with destabilizing clashes with other clans over the last year. The family managed to resolve one fight when a rival clan agreed to pay the Khafarnas for killing two of its members. I asked if there was a standard rate. "Yeah," said the 42-year-old militant. "Between $14,000 and $28,000."
When the end comes, I guess it's best to hope you are worth the top end of the scale, though those who say that life is cheap, at least in this case, just might be right...