By Hisham Abu Taha
GAZA CITY – Following two days of deadliest violence and fighting, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh vowed yesterday that his Hamas-led government would not let Palestinians slide into civil war.
Twelve Palestinians were killed and more than 100 wounded in two days of clashes between supporters of Haniyeh’s ruling Islamist movement and the rival Fatah party, concentrated in the Gaza Strip and the flashpoint West Bank.
Compounding the tension, an armed group affiliated to Fatah threatened to kill Hamas leaders, blaming the hard-line faction for violence unprecedented since the Islamists took power after a landslide election win in January.
“We are against internal clashes,” Haniyeh told a Cabinet meeting in Gaza City. “We cannot allow a civil war to erupt, but this question is the responsibility of everyone.” The embattled premier was speaking just hours after a radical group linked to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah issued a vitriolic statement, threatening to kill leaders in his Hamas party.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades pointed the finger at Hamas’ powerful exiled political supremo in Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, Gaza-based Interior Minister Said Siam and chief of the group’s paramilitary force in Gaza, Yousuf Al-Zahar.
“In this statement, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades declare loud and clear the decision of the people and the revolution to condemn to death the head of the discord Khaled Meshaal, as well as Said Siam and Yousuf Al-Zahar,” it said.
“We will charge ourselves with executing this sentence so that these scoundrels serve as an example to all those who dare spill Palestinian blood.”
Hamas reacted immediately, accusing Fatah of sowing discord and poisoning the atmosphere. “We are speaking about a seditious current in the heart of Fatah that searches to sow discord and poison the atmosphere in order to realize personal aims,” said MP Mushir Al-Masri.
Yesterday, some 100 security forces loyal to Fatah blocked the Gaza Strip’s main highway with vehicles and burning tires, but a paramilitary controlled by the Hamas government did not intervene.
The two days of violence erupted on Sunday, when the Hamas paramilitary force tried to stop the mainstream security forces from blocking roads in Gaza as part of their demonstrations against nonpayment of salaries.
Hamas has been unable to pay any full public service salaries since taking power in March owing to an international aid boycott stemming from its refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by past agreements.
In the northern village of Azzun, in the occupied West Bank, a car belonging to a Hamas member was set alight and gunmen opened fire on a house belonging to another official of the party.
Further north in Nablus, suspected Fatah loyalists burned two buses belinging to a Hamas-run school and opened fire on the car of a university lecturer close to the ruling party.
On the eve of a visit to Israel and the West Bank by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Haniyeh lashed out at her regional tour.
“It is clear that Condoleezza Rice is resorting to the old policy of divide and rule,” he told the Cabinet. “We urge all the brother Arab countries not to bow to the American plans and aspirations of the American administration to carve up the region,” he added.
Political talks between Fatah and Hamas on forming a unity government have stalled over Hamas’ hard-line stance despite an initial agreement last month between Abbas and Haniyeh on a political platform.
© 2006 Arab News, with input from agencies