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Rival Palestinian Gunmen Clash, Leaving 8 Dead

The violence between Fatah and Hamas begins in Gaza and spreads to the West Bank. More than 80 people are hurt, most of them civilians.

October 02, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Armed men from the governing Hamas movement and its rival, Fatah, clashed Sunday in a series of gun battles in the Gaza Strip that left at least eight people dead and dozens more injured, Palestinian officials said.

It was the deadliest factional violence in months of tension, and came as the two sides appeared to have deadlocked in their attempts to form a coalition government aimed at breaking the international aid boycott against the Hamas-led government.

The outbreak of violence jumped to the West Bank, where gunmen set fire to the offices of the Hamas-run Cabinet in the city of Ramallah and burned a car outside the Education Ministry building.

The hopscotching violence reflected the geographical balance of power between the rival Palestinian groups. Whereas Gaza is the main stronghold of Hamas, a radical Islamic movement, once-dominant Fatah prevails in the West Bank.

The clashes began after 3,000 members of a special Hamas police unit took up positions around the Gaza Strip with orders to use force, if necessary, to break up demonstrations by members of the Palestinian security forces. The security officers have closed roads and burned piles of tires to protest the government's failure to pay them full salaries.

Many of those demonstrators are Fatah members, and Hamas has accused them of seeking to create chaos to undercut the government, of which Hamas gained control after winning parliamentary elections in January.

Late Sunday, officials expressed regret over the clashes, and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas urged calm. But a government spokesman said Hamas forces were justified in trying to keep protesters from going too far.

"We have deployed the executive forces in the streets to maintain law and order and to stop the state of lawlessness and troublemakers," said Ghazi Hamad, the spokesman. "The participation of security service members in riots is a violation of the law which threatens the national security in the Palestinian community."

Fatah leaders accused Hamas of brutality.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who belongs to Fatah and was in Jordan at the time, urged security force members to halt their demonstrations. He pledged a criminal investigation of the shootings.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered a delegation of security specialists from his country who are assigned to Gaza to mediate between the two factions.

By evening, though, the streets in Gaza City were quiet.

The dead included three civilians, one of them a 15-year-old boy, and two members of the presidential guard. An officer in the Palestinian preventive security force was killed, along with a member of the Hamas unit. A Fatah member was killed late Sunday in a confrontation with Hamas forces that also injured at least 20 people in the Bureij refugee camp, south of Gaza City.

Most of more than 80 wounded in the confrontations were civilian bystanders, officials said.

The clashes began when the Hamas units sought to clear demonstrators from a main road near Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, leaving 17 people hurt amid the shooting. A separate confrontation broke out in the Sheik Adwan neighborhood on the northern edge of Gaza City.

A sustained gun battle near the parliament building in Gaza City killed the teenage boy and wounded numerous others. The two members of Force 17, the corps of presidential guards, died during separate skirmishes near Abbas' Gaza City residence.

The gun battles marked the latest dark turn in the Palestinian political situation, and it renewed fears of more widespread civil strife.

Abbas and Haniyeh said they had reached a tentative agreement on a unified government last month, but subsequent talks to solidify the deal were frozen after disputes arose over whether the proposed government would recognize Israel.

Hamas refuses to recognize the Jewish state and has said that it would agree only to a long-term truce. Abbas wants the government to comply with the three conditions set by the West for restoring aid to the Palestinian Authority: recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and honoring agreements between the Palestinians and Israel.

Fatah accused Hamas of backtracking on the initial agreement, which contained wording meant to signal a tacit acceptance of Israel's right to exist. But Abbas, during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly late last month, appeared to demand that the proposed government recognize Israel more explicitly.

The two sides have not met since, stirring rising concern among Palestinians of an impasse that could lead to more violence. Palestinian leaders are under pressure from the 165,000 government employees as well as ordinary residents to find an end to the aid boycott, imposed soon after Hamas came to power.

The Palestinian treasury has been further depleted because Israel has withheld about $50 million monthly in tax and customs revenues it collects on the Palestinians' behalf.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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Times special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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