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Palestinian premier ends tour after judge is slain

December 14, 2006|Richard Boudreaux and Rushdi Abu Alouf | Special to The Times

KHAN YUNIS, GAZA STRIP — Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh cut short a visit abroad Wednesday after gunmen killed a judge in his Hamas movement on the fourth consecutive day of factional violence in the Gaza Strip.

The fighting among Palestinians came as Israeli soldiers fatally shot a Palestinian through the Israel-Gaza border fence, the first killing in the coastal territory by Israeli forces since a cease-fire began 18 days ago.

A Hamas statement accused President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party of sending a police "death squad" to ambush Judge Bassam Fara as he was going to work. As Hamas vowed to avenge the slaying, Abbas deployed Fatah-led troops to Gaza City, feeding expectations of a wider conflict.

The 30-year-old Fara, a member of this city's largest clan, had a dual identity as a civil court judge and a field commander in Hamas' armed wing. His widow said he had received death threats this week.

The assailants fired automatic rifles from parked cars as the judge crossed the street in front of the courthouse here at 7:40 a.m., said Yasser Abed Ghafour, a schoolteacher who saw the incident. At least nine gunmen in three cars were involved, he said.

No group claimed responsibility. Fatah denied involvement and attributed the killing to a family dispute.

The rival movements' police units and militias have been skirmishing on and off since Hamas, an Iran-backed Islamist movement, unseated the more moderate Fatah in elections in January and took control of the parliament and Cabinet. The ambush of the judge was the first slaying in the current flare-up of fighting that either group has publicly blamed on the other.

The new fighting erupted after Abbas said Saturday that he planned to call early elections in a bid to form a government more palatable to Israel and the West.

Haniyeh said Hamas would resist early elections.

On Sunday, a group of men opened fire at the motorcade of the Hamas-led interior ministry; no one was injured. The next morning, gunmen ambushed a car taking the three young sons of a senior Fatah intelligence official to school, killing the boys and their driver. On Tuesday, Fatah and Hamas militants traded gunfire in the streets here, wounding four.

The slaying Wednesday prompted Haniyeh to head home from Sudan, shortening what had been billed as a monthlong tour of Arab and Islamic countries that began Nov. 28.

"We need the prime minister to be here now to resolve these internal problems," said an advisor, Ahmed Youssef.

For Hamas, those problems include Abbas' deployment this week of dozens of his presidential guard troops near government installations, a move to narrow Hamas' firepower advantage over Fatah. On Wednesday, 1,000 Fatah militants marched on Abbas' house to demand more action against Hamas.

Haniyeh said Abbas' troops had "nothing to do with internal security" and were "obstructing the performance of the Interior Ministry" led by Hamas.

During his tour, Haniyeh said, he managed to secure $360 million in aid pledges from Iran, Qatar and Sudan to help pay overdue salaries to the Palestinian Authority's 165,000 workers.

The deadly shooting at the Israel-Gaza border occurred Wednesday night after a man on the Gaza side approached the fence with a rifle and grenades, the Israeli army said. Israeli troops fired from their side.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

Times staff writer Boudreaux reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abu Alouf from Khan Yunis.

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