Hamas gunmen kill 8 loyal to Fatah
Unit ambushed in Gaza Strip; Israel drawn in
GAZA CITY -- Eight bodies sprawled face down in a cornfield, next to an overturned jeep, signaled a new phase in Gaza's increasingly brutal civil strife.
The eight, members of a force loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's moderate Fatah movement, had rushed to back up embattled comrades yesterday when their jeep was ambushed by the Islamic militant Hamas group, veered off the road and overturned.
Hamas militants then riddled the vehicle with bullets, killing the trapped policemen execution-style, said a witness, who works at a nearby factory. "It was unbelievable. May God help us," said the man, who gave only his first name, Jamil, out of fear for his safety.
The most ruthless round of factional fighting yet has pushed the fragile Palestinian unity government closer to collapse. Gunmen in black ski masks took up positions in the streets and terrified residents huddled in their homes. Israel, too, was briefly drawn into the battle.
An Egyptian mediator said a truce was reached late yesterday -- the third in as many nights. The others collapsed within hours.
"I don't know when it's going to end and what the future will bring," said Salman Abu Arafeh, 42, a Gaza City interior decorator who was pinned down by gunfire in the hallway of his apartment for hours, along with his wife and two children. A total of 15 people were killed yesterday.
In the West Bank, Abbas called for the immediate implementation of a security plan that would put all rival forces under one command. However, his call is unlikely to be heeded: The fighting made it clear the Hamas-Fatah power struggle was never really resolved, despite the formation of the unity government in March.
Gaza's turmoil further weakened hopes for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, despite a new push by the Arab world to bring the sides to the table, based on an offer of Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from all lands it occupied in the 1967 Middle East War.
Israel has expressed major reservations, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Jordan's King Abdullah yesterday that he's ready to meet with Arab leaders in Israel or anywhere else to talk about the idea. Abdullah, in turn, asked Olmert to set a timetable for reaching a peace deal.
Negotiations, however, are inconceivable if the Palestinians descend into a protracted civil war.
This week's fighting was the worst since Hamas and Fatah agreed to share power in February. In all, 23 people have been killed and dozens wounded in three days of street fighting. Among the injured was a 10-year-old girl caught in the crossfire late yesterday and critically wounded by a gunshot to the head, Palestinian rescue workers said.
In the deadliest battle, Hamas gunmen fired rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars early yesterday at a training base for Fatah forces guarding the Karni cargo crossing with Israel. US security specialists had helped set up the base to improve security at Karni.
After the initial attack, Hamas fired on Fatah reinforcements rushing to the scene, including the jeep that overturned. All eight men were killed, hospital officials said. Fatah security men also came under fire as they tried to move the bodies away from the overturned jeep.
Two Israeli helicopter gunships and three tanks moved toward the area, and Hamas fighters quickly withdrew. At one point, a major in the Palestinian Presidential Guard was killed by Israeli Army fire as he tried to leave the crossing, security officials said.
Before sundown, Hamas said it fired rockets at Sderot, an Israeli town near Gaza. Residents counted more than 20 rockets. One rocket hit a house, seriously wounding an Israeli woman. It was the first time in three weeks that Hamas has claimed responsibility for a rocket barrage.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz summoned army commanders for late-night consultations. Earlier, defense officials said Israel would not be dragged into the fighting.
However, Israel closed Karni, the only route for cargo into Gaza. The closure means Gaza will soon run out of fuel for its power plant and electricity to most of the strip could be shut down by today, said Abdel Karim Abdeen, head of the Palestinian Energy Authority.
The current fighting had many of the elements of previous Hamas-Fatah clashes: combatants kidnapped scores of rivals, set up roadblocks to search cars, took over rooftops of high-rises and often fired randomly in crowded residential areas.
Both sides have become more ruthless this time, with Fatah accused of an execution-style killing of two Hamas supporters Sunday and Hamas ambushing the Fatah jeep yesterday. This might make it more difficult to negotiate a cease-fire and revive the coalition.
At the core of the fighting is the unresolved power struggle between Hamas, which won parliamentary elections last year, and Abbas's Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian politics for four decades. Squeezed by an international aid boycott, Hamas realized it could not govern alone and brought Fatah into the government. But the two sides never worked out their differences, particularly over security.
While the power-sharing deal largely halted factional fighting for three months, both sides continued to smuggle weapons through tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border, preparing for the next round.
The spark for the new fighting was deployment of 3,000 Fatah-allied members of the security forces in Gaza City last week, over Hamas' objections. Hamas has also bristled at Abbas' appointment of former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan as his national security adviser.
"Palestinian society is now similar to Lebanese society -- always in civil war or on the verge of civil war," said analyst Hillel Frisch of Israel's Bar-Ilan University.
"It's going to be cyclical: Both sides know the tremendous costs, so they try to contain it, but the problem is simply left unresolved, and is probably unresolvable," he said.
Both sides accused each other of waging a carefully orchestrated campaign to destroy the other.
The National Security, a force loyal to Abbas, said Hamas is leading a military coup against the Palestinian security establishment. A Hamas spokesman, Abdel Latif Kanuah, said Fatah is involved in a US-backed plot to overthrow Hamas, referring to US backing for Abbas' elite forces, the Presidential Guards.