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Gaza Police Fire on Militants; 11 Dead in Clashes

November 19, 1994|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GAZA CITY — Palestinian police Friday opened fire on Palestinian demonstrators for the first time, killing at least 11, wounding more than 120 and fueling fears that PLO chief Yasser Arafat's confrontation with Islamic militants could trigger civil war.

Islamic militants and the police first clashed outside a mosque, then engaged in street battles that lasted even after police vainly imposed a curfew in parts of the Gaza Strip.

Angry followers of the militant Islamic Jihad and Hamas movements poured into hospitals where the wounded were taken. They denounced Arafat, who is chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and head of the Palestinian self-governing authority, as a traitor and a stooge of Israel.

Militants torched Gaza's single movie theater and overran and burned an Israeli checkpoint near the isolated settlement of Netzarim. They gathered outside police headquarters and clashed with soldiers there as truckloads of suspected militants who had been detained by police pulled into the compound.

In Gaza City, as women wept in the stairwells and hospital rooms of Shifa Hospital, the sound of gunfire could be heard in the streets outside. Hundreds of men milled around the hospital compound. Some prayed, others wept.

Across from the hospital, a mosque broadcast the names of the dead, who were given the title "martyr"--one previously reserved for Palestinians who died fighting Israelis.

In another part of the city, grim-faced, bearded men gathered at the homes of families who had lost a member in clashes with police. Hasty burials, lit only by the light of the full moon, were under way by 7 p.m.

"We didn't expect this to happen between Palestinians," said a man who declined to give his name. He was hovering anxiously over the bed of his nephew, 13-year-old Mahmoud Sakr Biltaggi, at Shifa Hospital on Friday night. Biltaggi was shot in the abdomen during the clash that erupted at Gaza City's Palestine Mosque after noon prayers.

Biltaggi's father, the uncle said, is an activist with Islamic Jihad who was arrested one week ago by the Palestinian police, after a suicide bomber and member of Islamic Jihad blew himself up at the same Israeli checkpoint that was overrun Friday. In the earlier attack, the bomber, Hisham Hamad, killed three Israeli soldiers.

Israel responded to Hamad's attack by pressuring Arafat to crack down on Islamic Jihad and Hamas. The two organizations have carried out a string of bloody attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers and have vowed to torpedo Arafat's peace accord with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other Israeli officials have repeatedly warned Arafat that he must either face down Islamic militants or risk the collapse of the peace process. Since arriving in Gaza in July, Arafat has ordered the arrest of dozens of Islamic activists after each attack on Israelis. But those arrested have usually been released without charge within a few days.

Until Friday, Arafat avoided using force against the militants. Advisers warned him that any use of force against Hamas in Gaza, where the organization is a strong, well-organized political and social force with a wide following, would alienate a majority of residents.

But Hamas' increasingly bold challenges to his authority appear to have pushed Arafat into Friday's confrontation. After Islamic Jihad and Hamas militants staged a massive rally Nov. 11 in the heart of Gaza City, chanting slogans against Arafat and Israel, Justice Minister Freih Abu Medeen warned that they had "crossed a red line."

The most recent clash started after noon prayers Friday at the Palestine Mosque, where some 6,000 worshipers had gathered to observe the Muslim Sabbath. The white mosque is Gaza's largest, and a Hamas stronghold.

Militants interviewed at Shifa Hospital said worshipers were incited by the presence of about 200 armed, shielded police. The police reportedly surrounded a crowd of about 1,000 worshipers who had begun praying in the street when they couldn't squeeze inside the packed mosque.

A police spokesman said that the officers took up positions around the mosque only after police headquarters received information that Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group planned a violent demonstration after prayers. The police said they started shooting only after militants started marching toward the home of the suicide bomber and began throwing stones at the police.

The police said that they warned the demonstrators to stop, then fired in the air before shooting at any worshipers. But witnesses disputed that account.

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