Hamas Militiamen Beat Gaza Protesters

The Associated Press
Monday, August 13, 2007; 9:44 AM

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Hamas militiamen beat protesters with clubs and rifle butts to try to stop a demonstration by political opponents in the Gaza Strip on Monday, but hundreds chanting "We want freedom" defied the ban.

Hamas routed forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement in five days of savage fighting in Gaza in June. The Islamic militant group has tolerated no dissent since taking over the coastal strip.

After Fatah and other allied groups announced plans to stage a rally Monday, Hamas banned "all demonstrations and public gatherings" that did not have special permission.

Buses arriving at the demonstration site in a main square were halted by Hamas guards who beat protesters, driving them away and confiscating Fatah flags.

Nevertheless, about 300 protesters got past the militia cordon and demonstrated for about 20 minutes, shouting "We want to raise our voice," before dispersing.

Hamas men arrested several demonstrators and confiscated equipment from news photographers and cameramen seeking to cover the arrests, including an Associated Press camera.

The Palestinian journalists' union called on members to observe a three-day boycott of any events organized by the Hamas force to protest the treatment of the media.

Saleh Nasser, of the small, leftist, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine was at the protest and condemned Hamas' response.

"Treating people in this way when they came to raise their voice in a peaceful demonstration is something that is condemned, rejected and cannot be accepted," he said. "We are astonished by the decision to ban demonstrations."

Following the protest, Hamas squads raided Gaza offices of media organizations seeking material from the rally, eyewitnesses said. Staff at Gulf-based satellite broadcaster Al-Arabiyya said the Hamas men seized a camera, videotape and tripod from their premises.

The June infighting in Gaza, which killed about 100 people, deepened the already bitter political rivalry between Hamas and Fatah.

Following the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Abbas expelled Hamas from the Palestinian coalition government and formed a West Bank-based administration of moderates in its place.

Undeterred, deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh pledged to impose law and order on the formerly anarchic Gaza Strip. But his heavily armed police, known as the Executive Force, is gaining a reputation for being heavy-handed at best, particularly when dealing with Fatah supporters.

In other developments, Israeli troops arrested four Palestinians who slipped into Israel from Gaza through a border fence on Monday, the army said. The infiltrators were carrying one grenade and a knife, but they did not try to use them when the soldiers detained them, the army said.

It was not immediately clear why the Palestinians sneaked into Israel, the army said. Shooting incidents are common along the tense Gaza-Israel border, but there have been few cases of Palestinians successfully crossing the heavily guarded fence and entering Israel.

© 2007 The Associated Press