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Gunmen Assassinate Leader of Major Palestinian Faction in Gaza Strip : Mideast: Fatah aide had just addressed a rally supporting Israel-PLO accord. Attack raises fears of political violence.

September 22, 1993|MICHAEL PARKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Masked gunmen killed a leader of the major Palestinian movement Fatah on Tuesday in an apparent power struggle within the group, heightening fears of political violence as Palestinians move toward self-government.

Mohammed Hashem abu Shaban, 37, a prominent lawyer in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, had just addressed a rally in Gaza City in support of the agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization on Palestinian autonomy and was returning home when he was attacked.

After forcing his car off the road in Gaza City's strife-ridden Zeitouni neighborhood, the assailants wounded Abu Shaban in the leg as he tried to flee, then shot him in the head three or four times, according to Fatah activists in Gaza City.

Those with Abu Shaban--including his brother, his 13-year-old son and two bodyguards--were not hurt in the attack.

Abu Shaban, director of the Gaza Center for Human Rights, treasurer of the Gaza Bar Assn. and a key contact for Israeli peace activists, had led 10,000 people on a march through the streets of Gaza City last week in support of the peace accord, and he had continued to speak at the daily rallies.

But other leading PLO supporters discounted strongly the possibility that Abu Shaban had been assassinated by opponents of the accord from the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas. Hamas had recently concluded a pact with Fatah--PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's power base--against attacking each other.

PLO sources suggested, instead, that Abu Shaban was killed in an internal Fatah feud, perhaps over forthcoming appointments in the transitional Palestinian government. Although he had been expected to play a major role when the PLO assumes administrative control over the occupied Gaza Strip from Israel in January, he recently was replaced as the head of a key Fatah committee.

"Mohammed abu Shaban did a good job for the peace process, but the rejectionists, including Hamas, were not involved in his killing," said Freih abu Meddin, the bar president and a senior PLO figure in Gaza. "We will investigate very thoroughly, very carefully and punish quite severely those responsible.

"Thank God, this was not an incident between those who say 'yes' to the accord and those who say 'no,' " he added. "That is very important because it would be a step toward civil war. This is a different sort of killing, a different sort of tragedy."

One of the greatest fears of Palestinians and Israelis alike is that rival Palestinian organizations, factions within them and small splinter groups will set upon one another in a bloody power struggle as Israel withdraws its security forces from Gaza and other occupied territories and hands over the administration to local residents.

Jaber Fiddah, Fatah leader in Gaza, called on movement members to exercise restraint. "Resorting to violence now, just as we are establishing our transitional authority, would be tragic," Fiddah said. "It is too early to know the whole background of this killing, but I am urging people to avoid any further conflict."

Members of Abu Shaban's family, one of the largest clans in the region, nonetheless insisted the killing was carried out by those opposed to the compromises made by Arafat and defended by Abu Shaban, in the negotiations with Israel.

"My uncle was great in his speech, talking about peace," said Maha abu Shaban, the victim's niece. "People hugged him and kissed him for his peace words, but these (assailants) finished his life. This was a political assassination, this was the sabotage of peace."

Arafat had dispatched an elite unit from his commando forces to Gaza and the West Bank in recent weeks to protect Palestinian leaders there from extremists, according to Palestinian sources, but with only 37 men it is able only to provide bodyguards for the top leaders.

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