By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 17, 2007
JERUSALEM, May 16 -- Intensifying factional fighting brought the Palestinians' two-month-old power-sharing government closer to collapse Wednesday as Israeli military aircraft fired on a Hamas operations camp in the Gaza Strip in an effort to end days of rocket attacks on Israeli targets.
Despite calls for a cease-fire, at least 21 Palestinians, all of them apparently belonging to armed groups, died in the worst violence since Hamas and Fatah initially agreed in February to govern together. That arrangement was designed to end factional fighting but was weakened by the resignation this week of the parties' compromise candidate for interior minister.
The streets of Gaza remained empty Wednesday except for gunmen from the rival camps, who now appear to be operating with little regard for their respective political leaders. At least 36 Palestinians have died in clashes since Sunday.
Fatah and Hamas officials, along with Egyptian mediators, reiterated calls for an end to what has become a brutal cycle of reprisal killings. One of the Egyptian mediators was shot and wounded in the hand Wednesday after trying to walk Gaza's streets to test a tentative truce reached the previous evening.
The rocket fire and factional fighting have shattered cease-fire agreements in Gaza between Israel and the armed groups, as well as between the groups. Some officials in Gaza have begun calling on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader, to declare a state of emergency that could result in the dissolution of the government.
The rocket attacks, which had declined in frequency since the power-sharing agreement was reached, have prompted Israeli reprisals at a time of chaotic Palestinian factional fighting.
Hamas's military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, has fired at least 40 rockets toward Israel in the past two days -- including 12 Wednesday -- largely in defiance of Fatah-controlled security forces in Gaza. Hamas, an extremist Islamic movement, does not recognize Israel's right to exist; Fatah does. The two parties have been locked in a periodically violent political stalemate since Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections in January 2006.
Israeli military officials said the midday airstrike in the southern Gaza city of Rafah was aimed at a "terrorist operations center" that Hamas used for planning rocket and other attacks against Israel. Palestinian hospital officials said at least five members of the Hamas Executive Force, the movement's security branch, were killed.
But hours later a rocket barrage from Gaza wounded an Israeli woman in Sderot, a city near Gaza's border that has felt the brunt of the recent attacks. Military officials said the rocket landed on the woman's home and reported her injuries as moderate to serious. The Israeli air force responded a few hours later with a strike on what military officials called a cell of rocket launchers in northern Gaza, killing at least one man.
Israel's defense minister, Amir Peretz, told reporters Wednesday that the rocket fire is "intolerable and will prompt a response." Peretz is from Sderot, which has been hit by 17 of the crude rockets, known generically as Qassams, in the past two days. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert later convened his security cabinet, which in a statement said Israel's response would be "severe" if the rocket fire continued.
Wednesday's barrage struck a soccer field, a cemetery and another home near Peretz's own. Rocket fire on Tuesday injured another woman, moderately injured a man and left dozens from the town in shock.
The fighting between Hamas and Fatah began before dawn with an audacious attack by Hamas's military wing on the home of Rashid Abu Shbak, the leader of several Palestinian security branches largely loyal to Fatah. Five of Abu Shbak's bodyguards were killed in the pre-dawn raid, which quickly brought masked men from Fatah and Hamas into the streets.
Gunfire crackled throughout downtown Gaza City, particularly the blocks near Abbas's seaside presidential compound. Abbas is currently in the West Bank city of Ramallah, but at least two mortar shells reportedly hit his Gaza residence.
Palestinian hospital officials reported that 15 Palestinians were killed in the clashes, including those from the attack on Abu Shbak's house.
In one incident, Palestinian witnesses said, security officials from the Fatah-dominated Preventive Security Branch were driving five arrested Hamas gunmen through the city when their car was ambushed. Fatah officials said all seven men were killed.
Special correspondent Islam Abdulkareem in Gaza City contributed to this report.