The new Hamas security force clashed with fighters loyal to President Mahmoud
Abbas late Thursday, culminating a day of tense standoffs as Palestinian rivals
competed for control of the Gaza Strip.
forces take part in a training exercise in the streets of Gaza May 18,
2006. Security forces from rival Palestinian factions paraded through the
streets of Gaza on Thursday, sometimes within feet of one another,
intensifying fears of a showdown between the heavily armed
In the exchange of fire, two policemen were shot in the legs near the
parliament building and police headquarters, officials said. A Hamas gunman was
An Associated Press reporter on the scene said Hamas forces closed off the
streets leading to police headquarters, the stronghold of the Fatah loyalists,
and sporadic exchanges of fire could be heard every few minutes, half an hour
after the clash began.
Khaled Abu Hilal, spokesman of the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry, said
unknown gunmen opened fire on the police headquarters from a moving car. Police
apparently thought the Hamas forces nearby were responsible and fired at them.
A police spokesman, who refused to give his name, rejected that version and
blamed the Hamas-led force for starting the gunfight, which was confined to the
Abu Hilal said all sides were working to calm the situation, and Egyptian
diplomats were also involved.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the rival factions pose "a very
dangerous situation" that Palestinian leaders must confront.
She said in Washington that innocent Palestinians are being caught in the
violence. "The Palestinian leadership has every obligation to get control of
The power struggle began after Hamas won a January parliamentary election,
forming a government several weeks later to replace Fatah, the movement that
ruled Palestinian politics for decades.
Earlier, Abbas ordered the Islamic militants to remove the militia from the
streets, but Hamas refused. Officials in Abbas' office said he would not use
force, fearing a civil war. Abbas is the leader of Fatah.
During the day, about 2,000 Fatah supporters in military formation, many
bare-chested, double-timed through a main street of Gaza City, shouting,
"Jerusalem, the president, the homeland," clapping and whistling as they passed
Similar scenes played out up and down the seaside territory. Competing forces
patrolled, studiously ignoring each other. In the southern city of Khan Younis,
a Hamas leader accused Fatah gunmen of firing at his house and threatened
reprisals. No one was hurt.
The unprecedented Hamas-Fatah friction, including deadly drive-by ambushes
against two Hamas gunmen in Gaza earlier in the week, came alongside new efforts
to explore a possible revival of Mideast peace contacts.
Abbas was to hold talks Sunday with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the
first high-level meeting since Hamas came to power, Palestinian official Saeb
Erekat said. Israel has said it would not resume negotiations, even with Abbas,
unless Hamas softens its violently anti-Israel views.
Abbas, elected to replace Arafat in January 2005, has another three years to
serve as president, regardless of who controls the Cabinet. He has been
systematically trying to reduce Hamas power, while trying to persuade the world
to deal with him directly, including funneling vitally needed foreign aid
through his office to bypass the Hamas-led government, which is facing a Western
Hamas is not making direct threats against Abbas. Its tactic has been to go
about its business and ignore the demands of the 70-year-old Fatah leader, who
has yet to cut an impressive figure as Arafat's successor.
Hamas called Abbas' bluff on Thursday, flatly refusing to follow his order to
take its new 3,000-man force off the streets.
Interior Minister Said Siyam of Hamas deployed the unit Wednesday, in
defiance of Abbas' orders to disband it. Hamas militants armed with assault
rifles, grenades and anti-tank missiles took up positions in the streets, and in
one case put down a peaceful protest by college graduates seeking teaching jobs.
Fatah responded with demonstrations in Gaza City and stepped-up patrols
throughout the territory.
Gen. Suleiman Hilles, commander of Fatah-dominated Palestinian security
forces in the West Bank and Gaza, said the forces were deployed to send a
message that "the Palestinian police is the only side that can maintain law and
However, the lines were not clearly drawn, since some of the police officers
also back Hamas. Several hundred police officers met Thursday with Palestinian
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and professed their loyalty to the
government. Haniyeh told the officers that the new unit of militants was formed
legally and that it would work alongside the security forces.
Even before the January election put Hamas in power, Abbas avoided
confronting Hamas and other militant groups, hoping to tame them through
negotiations. Now he clearly fears an all-out civil war, though activists on all
sides insist their weapons should be directed against Israel, not each