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Archive for Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Internal Palestinian battles continue

October 3, 2006

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— Gunbattles erupted Monday night between Fatah gunmen and Hamas militiamen in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, killing two people and wounding 14 a day after a deadly explosion of internal violence paralyzed the Gaza Strip.

The fighting was the latest in a series of sporadic battles over the past two days as tensions remained high between the two groups. Fatah militants enforced a general strike in many West Bank towns in a show of strength against Hamas, while the Hamas-led government ordered all ministries closed to protest Fatah attacks on government buildings.

But there was less violence Monday compared to the chaos and running street battles that killed eight people and wounded 100 others across Gaza a day earlier.

In an effort to reduce friction, Hamas pulled its militiamen out of Gaza's major streets Monday and sent them back to their posts. "Gaza today is better, and moving toward calm," Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas told his Cabinet on Monday afternoon, but said he feared violence in the West Bank, where Fatah militants threatened to retaliate for the Gaza fighting.

Hours after he spoke, Fatah gunmen marched through Rafah to protest the Hamas-led government and its militia, witnesses said. When they approached a militia post, a gunbattle broke out, and five people were wounded, one seriously, they said.

The fighting ended after Hamas and Fatah officials called on their supporters to back down. But minutes later, a battle erupted in a Fatah stronghold across town that killed two people and left nine wounded. Fatah and Hamas militiamen blamed each other.

The latest round of violence began in Gaza on Sunday when the 3,500-man Hamas militia confronted members of the Fatah-dominated security forces who were protesting the government's inability to pay their wages. Fatah militants responded by torching the Cabinet building in Ramallah and trashing Hamas offices in the West Bank.

Hamas, which ousted Fatah in January parliamentary elections, formed the militia in April after losing a power struggle for control of the security forces with President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader elected separately last year.

The violence further dampened hopes for a coalition government between Fatah and Hamas, which was aimed at ending economic sanctions imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas' election victory. Those sanctions left the government unable to pay its 165,000 workers.

Coalition talks stalled as Abbas unsuccessfully pushed for Hamas to accept Western demands to moderate its violent ideology. Fatah lawmaker Saeb Erekat, an Abbas confidant, dismissed the possibility of a quick return to talks. "Coalition talks suffered before this (violence)," he said. "At the moment, we are focusing on ensuring these things will not recur."

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