By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem
The convoy of Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian Prime Minister, came under fire yesterday as tensions burst into the open again on the streets of Gaza between Hamas and its Fatah rivals.
While no one was injured in the gunfire, one of the cars in the convoy burst into flames after the occupants had fled. Hamas officials insisted that the attack had not been an assassination attempt but was launched at Hamas paramilitaries by relatives of a Fatah member killed by members of a Hamas militia.
Nevertheless the incident – the first in which Mr Haniyeh has been personally exposed to danger from armed supporters of his political opponents – threatened to undermine Egyptian-brokered efforts this week to ease internal conflict which has claimed the lives of at least 17 Palestinians in the past month.
The shooting happened as the Hamas leader was returning from Friday prayers at a Gaza mosque where he had made clear that the faction would oppose any attempt by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to dissolve the cabinet as a means to end the Israeli and international blockade of the PA.
On Thursday night Mr Abbas gave his strongest indication yet that he was ready to replace the cabinet in response to Hamas’s refusal to meet the demands of Israel and the international community to recognise Israel, renounce violence and sign up to all past agreements made by the previous Fatah administration.
He told diplomats: "We are going to make the decisions about forming a cabinet that abides by Palestinian and Arab and international legality to lift the siege from our people and mitigate its suffering."
Mr Abbas did not give further details, though he is thought to have been contemplating the formation of a government dominated by non-affiliated "technocrats" who might assume office pending a fresh round of elections or a referendum on whether such elections should be held.
In his own remarks yesterday in Gaza, Mr Haniyeh said that any new government would have to be approved by a majority in the parliament, in which Hamas has 71 out of 132 seats.
He added: "All you have here are options that have no aim but to remove Hamas from government. The wheel of history will not go backward."
In yesterday’s incident, the Fatah-affiliated gunmen fired at Mr Haniyeh’s convoy as it drove through the Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza. Islam Shiwan, a spokesman, said that Mr Haniyeh’s armoured Mercedes had not been hit, but that the last car in the motorcade had been. An official in Mr Haniyeh’s office said: "The Prime Minister’s condition is good, and he is out of the area of fire."
One person was lightly injured yesterday in a Qassam rocket strike on the centre of Sderot – the seventh rocket launched into Israel from Gaza during the day.
Earlier, Egyptian police were reported by Israeli media to have intercepted a large arms shipment destined for Gaza.
There has been widespread speculation in Israel that the Israeli military – which has already extended its operations against arms smuggling tunnels into Gaza – is contemplating a much larger military operation in the Strip against militants.
© The Independent, UK, October 21, 2006 (http://news.independent.co.uk)