Factional Violence in Gaza Escalates

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 17, 2006; 11:20 AM

JERUSALEM, Dec. 17--Gunmen opened fire on the convoy of the Palestinian foreign minister from the governing Hamas movement Sunday in the tense aftermath of President Mahmoud Abbas's call for early elections. Hours later a mortar attack on the presidential compound in the Gaza Strip wounded five people and a Palestinian civilian was killed in running gun battles.

Hamas officials condemned the attack on Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar's motorcade, which came as it passed through Gaza City, as an assassination attempt. There were no reports of injuries in the attack on the motorcade.

The apparent ambush marks the second time in less than a week that a senior Hamas official has come under fire amid a spike in factional fighting whose regularity and boldness has raised fears among Palestinians that the territories may be slipping toward a broad civil conflict.

"We condemn this type of violence against our ministers," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman. "We are seeking the support of all Palestinians to guarantee the safety of our people."

The gunfire Sunday came a day after Abbas, a leader of the secular Fatah movement, announced his decision to call for early general elections less than a year after the last national vote. The elections, which would include his own office, are Abbas's latest attempt to end a political standoff in the territories that has inflamed partisan strife.

Abbas's Fatah faction lost parliamentary elections in January to Hamas, a radical Islamic movement classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and Israel. International donor nations that supply nearly half the Palestinian Authority's roughly $2 billion annual operating budget cut off aid to the government until Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence and agrees to abide by previously signed agreements backed by Fatah.

The Hamas leadership has refused to do so during months of talks over the formation of national unity government, which Abbas said in his national address Saturday remained his preferred way to end the crisis.

Barhoum said Sunday that those talks, which collapsed earlier this month, would begin again soon.

Zahar, a surgeon by training, is an outspoken Hamas hardliner whom the Israeli government has tried to assassinate before.

Following the ambush of Zahar's motorcade, shots were fired at Abbas's presidential compound in Gaza City, although he was not there at the time. Not long after, several mortar rounds were fired at the complex, with one hitting a private home and another landing inside the compound walls. Five people were wounded.

Soon after, the presidential guard, a Palestinian security service under Abbas's control, took over the agriculture and transportation ministry buildings near the seaside compound. Fatah officials said the guard did so to secure the area, but Barhoum and other Hamas officials criticized the move as illegal.

A 19-year-old university student was killed during hours of subsequent gun fighting in Gaza's streets, Palestinian hospital officials said.

For much of the past week, the armed wings of Fatah and Hamas have engaged in reprisal killings, following the fatal shooting of the three young sons of a senior Palestinian intelligence officer affiliated with Fatah.

The convoy of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas came under attack Thursday evening, killing one of his body guards and wounding his son, a political adviser and others.

Haniyeh said Sunday that Hamas would boycott any early elections, which under Abbas's plan would come less than halfway through the party's four-year parliamentary term.

It is uncertain whether Abbas has the legal authority to call the early vote. But he convened the Central Elections Commission on Sunday to begin the process of arranging the elections, which his aides have said could not be held before the summer of 2007.

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