Friday, December 15, 2006

Fatah and Hamas gunmen clash in Gaza, Ramallah

By Amos Harel, Avi Issacharoff and Akiva Eldar, Haaretz Correspondents, and Agencies

Fatah and Hamas gunmen exchanged fire on the streets of Gaza City and the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday, a day after unidentified gunmen shot at Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's entourage.

A Ramallah resident told Israel Radio that one person was killed in the Ramallah clashes, but the report was not immediately confirmed. Hospital sources said nearly 20 Hamas supporters were wounded by gunfire, with some in critical condition. The violence came ahead of planned celebrations for Hamas' 19th anniversary.

The fighting in Ramallah began when Fatah and Hamas militants began shooting at each other in the street. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' security forces, dressed in riot gear, used clubs and rifles to beat back Hamas demonstrators before shooting broke out.

The shooting in Gaza City began Friday afternoon when masked Hamas gunmen began waging battle with Fatah-allied Palestinian police at their post in the middle of the city. The four-minute battle sent civilians running for cover. It was unclear if anyone was hurt.

In a show of force, Hamas had earlier deployed armed militants carrying automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers in key parts of the Gaza Strip on Friday.

The shooting took place a block away from the home of top Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan, whom Hamas accused of orchestrating the attack on Haniyeh.

The clashes came as Hamas accused forces loyal to Abbas of trying to assassinate Haniyeh on Thursday night, and vowed to punish those responsible, intensifying fears of civil war.

The attack on Haniyeh's convoy took place upon his return from a fundraising tour of the Middle East. Haniyeh's bodyguard was killed in the shooting, and more than two dozen people - including Haniyeh's son, Abdel Salam, and his political adviser, Ahmed Yousef - were wounded. The incident deepened factional violence that has pushed the rival Hamas and Fatah parties closer to civil war.

Haniyeh has threatened to "deal with" shots fired at his convoy, but did not provide further details. Angry Hamas officials on Friday pointed the finger at Dahlan, who denied the accusation.

Ismail Radwan, a Hamas spokesman, told a news conference that Dahlan "planned and organized the [attempted] assassination of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh."

"The dirty hands which assassinated and wounded the body guards of the prime minister and attacked the prime minister's convoy will not escape punishment," said Radwan. He offered no evidence of Dahlan's involvement.

Fatah dismissed the accusations against Dahlan.

"These accusations are not true, as long as no investigation to find out has been conducted," Tawfik Abu Khousa, a Fatah spokesman, said, calling for an official investigations. "These accusations are posing a grave threat to Palestinian unity."

The shooting attack took place while Haniyeh was held up at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza for more than seven hours. Israel triggered the closure to prevent him from bringing in $35 million in suitcases of cash raised on a trip to Iran and other Muslim states. Haniyeh was allowed to enter Gaza on Thursday night after being forced to leave the funds in Egypt.

Arriving home around midnight, Haniyeh appeared furious over the gunfire at his convoy. "We know the party that shot directly at our cars, injuring some of the people with me... and we also know how to deal with this," he said, but did not explain further.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the shooting was an attempt to assassinate Haniyeh, and held the Fatah-allied Presidential Guard responsible.

"The Presidential Guard controls the Palestinian side [of the border
terminal]. There are no other gunmen there. They are responsible for security of the border," Barhoum said. "We say there was a clear assassination attempt."

Wael Dahab, a spokesman for the Presidential Guard, said many gunmen were in the area and that it was difficult to control the situation. "Our men did not start the shooting, they did not shoot, and there were many people carrying guns," he said.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas expressed regret for the shooting, according to the Palestinian news agency, WAFA.

About 50 gunmen greeted Haniyeh at his home in a refugee camp next to Gaza City, firing in the air and throwing candies.

Israel, which triggered the closure of the border to prevent Haniyeh's passage with the money, agreed Thursday evening to allow him to cross if he left the money in Egypt.

Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said the money must not be allowed in because it will be used to fund terror.

"It won't go to the hungry Gaza residents," he said. "It will go to the tunnel diggers, to the weapons smugglers."

The shooting late Thursday capped a turbulent day of intensifying factional
fighting between the Islamic militant Hamas and the Fatah movement of moderate
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Both sides have warned that they are
edging closer to civil war.

The latest round of Hamas-Fatah fighting erupted Monday with the brutal
killing of the three small children of a Fatah security official and continued Wednesday with the gangland-style execution of a Hamas judge.

Thursday's gunbattles at the border erupted in the afternoon after Hamas
militants, angry that Israel was preventing Haniyeh from returning, stormed the Rafah terminal.

The Presidential Guard, responsible for securing the area, opened fire,
setting off a gunfight. Terrified travelers ran for cover, some carrying their luggage. Crying women and children hid behind walls and taxis, while the European monitors who police the crossing fled. The rampage destroyed furniture and computer equipment inside the terminal and plunged the area into darkness.

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