Factional Battles in Gaza Leave at Least Six Dead

By Scott Wilson

JERUSALEM – Continued fighting between rival Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday killed at least six people and wounded about 20, several of them children.

The violence, primarily scattered gunfights in the streets of Gaza, has defied attempts at mediation since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced Saturday (Dec 16) that he had decided to call early general elections. Gaza residents reported continued gunfire late Tuesday, minutes after a new cease-fire deal brokered by Egyptian mediators went into effect, the Reuters news agency reported.

By Wednesday, however, the situation had calmed, with far fewer gunmen from both sides on the streets.

Earlier Tuesday, Abbas, a leader of the Fatah movement, called on Hamas and the armed wing of his party to end fighting that he has warned undermines Palestinian unity and the push for peace with Israel. Hours later his political rival, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, urged calm in a televised address from Gaza.

"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.

Hamas officials have said an early vote would represent an attempt to overturn the movement\’s January parliamentary victory that ended Fatah\’s long monopoly on power. Haniyeh suggested Tuesday that the new elections were being called at the behest of the Bush administration.

Abbas said he is planning to order the elections, including for his own office, because of the breakdown in talks with Hamas to form a power-sharing government acceptable to foreign donors. Those donors cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority after the victory of Hamas, a radical Islamic movement considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Israel. An early vote, which Abbas has yet to formally decree and is not assured of winning, would come less than halfway into Hamas\’s four-year term.

As debate brewed among Palestinians over the possible election, Al-Qaeda\’s number two leader called on Hamas to oppose them, and said participation in the vote would mean "loss and defeat" for the Islamist movement.

"Those who are trying to free Islamic land through elections that are based on secular constitutions . . . will not free a grain of Palestinian sand, but will choke jihad" against Israel, Ayman al-Zawahari said in a videotape broadcast by Al Jazeera television, according to Reuters. The date and source of the recording were not clear.

In an 85-minute address, Haniyeh blamed the failure to form a unity government on Fatah, which originally declined to join a Hamas-led cabinet after the elections.

But Haniyeh also called for new talks with Fatah. He said Hamas would relinquish the foreign and information ministries, while holding on to the interior and finance portfolios — the latter, he said, to avoid a repeat of Fatah\’s corrupt previous administration of it.

He also reiterated Hamas\’s position that it would accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, offering Israel a 20-year truce in return. Israel and international donors have demanded that Hamas recognize Israel\’s right to exist in return for a restoration of aid.

"I call for an overall national reconciliation in the cities, camps and villages," said Haniyeh, adding that Hamas "rejects" early elections that "will take us back 10 years. We respect the choice of the Palestinian people."

In October, factional fighting broke out as renewed efforts were underway to form a national unity government. Six Palestinians were killed and more than 100 others wounded on a single day.

In late May, fighting between the parties also spiked, in the days before Abbas called a referendum that Hamas opposed on the shape of a future Palestinian state. More than a dozen people were killed or wounded in those clashes, which lasted more than a week. The vote was never held because of fighting in Gaza and Lebanon over the summer.

King Abdullah of Jordan offered Tuesday to broker a new cease-fire between Hamas and Fatah. He was hosting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on an unannounced visit to the Jordanian capital.

Israeli officials said Olmert visited the king to discuss joint economic projects, regional security issues including Iraq and Lebanon, and ways Israel and Jordan could help curb fighting in the territories. Miri Eisin, Olmert\’s spokeswoman, said each country had an interest in "strengthening the moderate elements in the territories and in reducing the influence of the extremists there."

Officials from Hamas and Fatah said the terms of the cease-fire they reached Sunday evening (Dec 17) were still in effect. But on Gaza\’s streets, gunfire cracked for much of the day. There were also reports of reprisal kidnappings, including the abduction of a Hamas official in the West Bank city of Hebron by masked gunmen.

Hamas and Fatah security forces exchanged fire early Tuesday within the Shifa Hospital compound in Gaza City, leaving a Hamas gunman dead. A few hours later, three officers from a security service loyal to Fatah were killed in street fighting with Hamas gunmen.

Two other Fatah intelligence officers were kidnapped and killed by Hamas gunmen, their bodies left in the street.

The convoy of Gaza\’s governor also came under fire, although there were no reports of injuries. Of the estimated 20 people wounded in the street fighting, at least five were children caught in the crossfire, Palestinian health officials said.

-Copy Rights The Washington Post (December 20, 2006); the Post’s special correspondent Islam Abdelkareem in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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