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Palestinian Battles Raise Fears of Coup And Civil War

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

JERUSALEM, June 12 -- Gunmen loyal to the two main Palestinian parties fought street battles in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday that increasingly bore the hallmarks of civil war, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader, warned that the rival Hamas movement was attempting a coup.

At least two dozen Palestinian fighters and three civilians were killed in the third consecutive day of clashes, the largest one-day total in 18 months of periodic factional conflict. The attacks brought the three-day death toll in Gaza to at least 42 people and to more than 90 so far this year.

The two parties have different visions of a future Palestinian state, with Fatah favoring peace with Israel and Hamas advocating its eradication, but they are battling now over the control of various Palestinian security forces and the resulting opportunities for patronage. The conflict is complicated by U.S. and Israeli efforts to help Fatah contain Hamas, which is supported by Iran.

Arrests and a kidnapping Tuesday in Ramallah, in the West Bank, suggested that the internal conflict could spread to the more populous of the Palestinian territories. The West Bank has remained largely free from the cycle of attack and reprisal that has marked the factional strife to date.

Gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Gaza home of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, an attack denounced by officials of the Islamic movement as an assassination attempt even though he was not there at the time. Soon after, several mortar shells fell near the Gaza compound of Abbas, who was in Ramallah.

The choice of targets suggested a further loosening of restraint by the armed men loyal to each party.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement Tuesday that Hamas and Fatah gunmen had summarily executed captives and killed bystanders. Such acts "are war crimes, pure and simple," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization's Middle East director.

The power struggle had intensified after Hamas defeated Fatah in January 2006 parliamentary elections, giving Hamas day-to-day control of the government and prompting Western donors to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, further impoverishing Gaza's 1.4 million residents.

The two parties have sat in a power-sharing government since March that has united them in name only. Late Tuesday, the Fatah Central Committee voted to suspend the party's participation in the government until the fighting stops.

In a statement issued by his office Tuesday, Abbas, elected to succeed the late Yasser Arafat in January 2005, said, "The political and military leaders of Hamas are planning a coup against the legitimate institutions, thinking they will be able to control the Gaza Strip by force."

The Bush administration has approved $40 million to train and supply nonlethal equipment to security forces loyal to Abbas in order to improve Fatah's military position against a smaller but better trained Hamas force in Gaza. The money is arriving now. Hamas officials have begun identifying the Fatah-controlled forces as allies of Israel and the United States, which both classify Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, as a terrorist organization.

Over a minaret loudspeaker in Gaza City, Hamas on Tuesday ordered Fatah forces to surrender military posts, threatening to "attack the positions of the Zionist collaborators." Hamas forces surrounded smaller Fatah posts in northern, central and southern Gaza, controlling the entrances.

Then, under cover of nightfall, several hundred Hamas fighters attacked a hilltop post of the Palestinian National Forces, whose ranks include Fatah members, in the northern Jabalya refugee camp. Using small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, Hamas fighters took control of the post after intense fighting.

Palestinian hospital officials said at least 23 fighters from Hamas and Fatah were killed and more than 30 were wounded. It was perhaps the largest single assault in the factional fighting to date. In a statement later in the evening, Hamas's military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, acknowledged that at least seven of its gunmen were killed by what it described as the "Jew-American army" of Fatah.

"All stability -- from political to security -- is being threatened by the Fatah groups," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. "Now there is a war against Hamas's military force. The situation is going from bad to worse."

Gazans largely remained indoors, although high school students continued with classes despite the numerous roadblocks, barricades and rooftop gun emplacements set up by of armed men in masks.

Egyptian mediators failed to forge a new cease-fire between the parties. The Hamas delegation could not reach the talks because of roadblocks and other security concerns. Lt. Col. Burhan Hamad, head of the Egyptian delegation, said the Hamas delegation told him the talks were like "giving aspirin to a patient with a fatal disease."

Just after noon, Hamas gunmen attacked the home of Hassan Mohsen, whom they identified as a senior officer in the Fatah-controlled Preventive Security Service, even though his relatives said he worked for a rescue unit assigned to Gaza's beaches.

Witnesses said the Hamas men blasted through the front door, killing Mohsen's wife, a daughter and a niece. After seeing the dead women, witnesses said, the Hamas gunmen fled.

Later, a member of the Fatah-controlled security services was killed during fighting in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City where Haniyeh lives. His family said the man was killed by "Shia," a reference to the support that Hamas, a Sunni Muslim movement, receives from the Shiite government of Iran.

In Ramallah, officers from Abbas's presidential guard closed the office of the Hamas-run al-Aqsa television channel after detaining several men there allegedly taking pictures of the presidential compound.

Not long after, witnesses said, gunmen who belong to Fatah's armed wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, seized Faidi Shabaneh, the vice minister of transportation from Hamas. His fate was unknown.

Special correspondent Islam Abdelkareem in Gaza contributed to this report.

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