Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Hamas-Fatah truce goes into effect on Gaza streets

By Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz Correspondent, Haaretz Service and Agencies

Hamas and Fatah security forces on Tuesday began withdrawing from parts of Gaza City under a cease-fire deal reached earlier in the day, security sources and witnesses said.

It was unclear whether the ceasefire would hold. Minutes after it took effect, Gaza City residents reported an exchange of fire between gunmen.

The feuding factions agreed late Tuesday to withdraw their forces from the streets of Gaza City, after a week of rampant violence left 14 dead and dozens wounded.

The truce went into effect at 11 P.M. on Tuesday.

"We bless and support this agreement," Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "We hope all will abide by this agreement."

Hamas and Fatah security chiefs earlier appeared side by side in Gaza City to declare that Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas had agreed to pull back their gunmen.

The two sides also agreed to form a joint operations room with the Fatah-led security forces to respond quickly to any outbreaks of violence, a PA official said.

The agreement was reached after intense mediation by Egypt, the official said. A tenuous truce signed Sunday broke down within 24 hours, as violence continued on both sides.

Under the current deal, only Palestinian police would be allowed to patrol the streets with weapons, the official said.

Abbas and Haniyeh called Tuesday afternoon on the warring factions to stop fighting in the Gaza Strip, after a day of violence in which six people were killed.

"I call on all to show restraint and calm, not to resort to arms and to end tensions," Haniyeh said in a speech broadcast live on television, in which he also urged the warring factions to unite in the struggle against Israel.

"This nation, this people, will be united in front of the occupation and aggression and will not be engaged, despite the wounds of the past few days, in internal fighting," Haniyeh said in a televised speech.

Abbas said in a statement, "I call on ... all, without exception, to adhere to a cease-fire and to end the killings and all other operations in order to maintain our national unity."

Amid calls for a truce, Haniyeh also slammed Abbas' call for early Palestinian elections "illegal" and accused the United States of spearheading efforts to bring down his democratically-elected government.

"I want to clarify that we consider the issue of the early elections for the presidency and parliament unconstitutional," Haniyeh said. "If you [Abbas] consider the people the source of power, why are you working against the will of the people."

"There is an undeclared decision to bring down the government... and the Americans are leading this effort," Haniyeh added.

Gunbattles between Hamas loyalists and Fatah forces Tuesday left at least 18 people wounded, medical officials said, including five children caught in the cross-fire. Meanwhile, four Fatah militants and two Hamas militants were killed in fighting over the course of the day.

The internal Palestinian fighting, the worst in a decade, has escalated since Abbas called Saturday for early elections in an attempt to break a political deadlock with the Hamas government. Hamas has accused Abbas of launching a "coup."

Six killed in Gaza battles
Jordanian King Abdullah II on Tuesday offered to host talks between Abbas and the leader of Hamas to resolve the bloody confrontation between their factions.

Abdullah's call came after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a surprise visit to the Jordanian capital and held talks with the monarch about reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Two security officers from a force loyal to Abbas' Fatah faction were killed in a running street battle with Hamas gunmen in Gaza City, hospital officials said. Earlier, a Hamas policeman was killed in an exchange of fire inside a hospital compound.

In other fighting, two Fatah security officials were kidnapped and killed by Hamas gunmen, Fatah officials said. Hospital officials said the two bodies had been dumped in a street.

Elsewhere, the car of the governor of northern Gaza, a prominent Fatah loyalist, was hit by gunfire. The governor, Ismail Abu Shamallah, escaped injury, officials said.

But Hamas and Fatah officials said they remained committed to the truce, and accused each other of violating the deal.

"Hamas is abiding by the cease-fire," said spokesman Ismail Radwan. "The problem is that not all of Fatah's militias are participating in this decision."

Ibrahim Abu al-Najah, a mediator who helped arrange the truce, appealed for calm.

"What is going on is a violation and sabotage and I have called on both parties to shoulder their responsibility and to end what is going on in the streets," he said.

Dozens of police loyal to Abbas but who work in the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry staged a protest outside their headquarters, firing rifles into the air and saying they would no longer take orders from minister Saeed Seyam. They called Seyam the "minister of treason."

Civilians fled for their safety and some shops closed. In between bouts of fighting, masked gunmen roamed the streets.

"This is madness," said taxi driver Adel Mohammad-Ali, 40. "The streets are divided between Hamas and Fatah gunmen. You never know who is who."

Witnesses and rival factions said the Hamas policeman was killed when forces of the two sides fought at the entrance and inside the compound of the main Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Rocket-propelled grenades were also fired in that incident.

Clashes also erupted outside a key security agency controlled by Abbas.

While neither the Hamas Islamists nor Fatah have declared the end of a ceasefire agreed on Sunday night, there has been a spate of gunfights and kidnappings of rival activists since then. Most hostages have been swapped.

Abbas told visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday he was committed to early elections but left the door open for the formation of a Fatah-Hamas coalition with a "technocrat" cabinet that could satisfy Western countries.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, is expected to make a major speech in Gaza at 6 P.M. (1600 GMT) to respond to Abbas's election call. Hamas has said it would boycott any polls.

1 comment:

William said...

With regard to this rather long post - Britain and Israel are joining forces to promote these elections. They will not happen in my view. The opposition to having the elections recalled now is so massive. But we shall see. For a credible independent view on this issue see Karma Nabulsi's story at http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1975090,00.html