GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Celebrations marking the founding of the veteran Palestinian movement, Fatah, turned deadly in the Gaza Strip, where eight Palestinians were killed in clashes between Fatah backers and supporters of the territory’s Islamic Hamas rulers.
The internal violence came just hours after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered an unusually conciliatory speech toward Hamas. If it spirals, it could undermine U.S. President George W. Bush’s peace mission to the region next week by distracting Abbas from diplomacy.
Five Palestinians died in fighting across Gaza on Monday, and a sixth died of his wounds Tuesday morning. Two others were killed in Gaza City early Tuesday in a gunbattle between Hamas security men and a family affiliated with Fatah, leaving one Hamas policeman and a Fatah supporter dead, according to medical officials and Hamas.
The deaths were the first in Palestinian infighting since Nov. 11, when Hamas forces opened fire on a huge Fatah rally, killing eight and wounding 85. That gathering was the first sign of Fatah resurgence since Hamas overran Gaza in June by routing Fatah security forces.
Fireworks lit the skies of Gaza after nightfall Monday in celebration of Fatah’s 43rd anniversary, and Fatah backers fired rifles in the air all over Gaza, defying a ban on celebrations by Hamas rulers.
In the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, clashes erupted between Fatah backers and Hamas security forces. Medics said two Hamas police officers and a 14-year-old were killed. The medics identified him as a Fatah supporter, but the boy’s uncle said Tuesday he was a Hamas supporter who was returning from mosque when he was shot.
Two Fatah men died in Gaza City in a clash near a Fatah leader’s house, and an elderly man was wounded in a gunbattle in northern Gaza and died in hospital Tuesday, according to Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of the Gaza health ministry.
Fatah said dozens of its activists were arrested overnight, and that one of its leaders in Gaza City was briefly detained by Hamas forces who shaved off half his hair and mustache as humiliation. Hamas denied the charge.
Islam Shahwan, a spokesman for Hamas security forces, confirmed only that his men made a number of arrests. Hamas banned fireworks and the traditional Fatah parades on Jan. 1, calling the gathering in Khan Younis “illegal.”
Hamas said the two officers were shot by Fatah gunmen on rooftops there. Fatah said Hamas forces raided houses and arrested dozens of Fatah members.
After the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Abbas expelled Hamas from the government and installed his own administration based in the West Bank. The West restored aid to Abbas and encouraged renewed peace talks with Israel. However, Abbas has no control over Gaza.
At a conference last month in Annapolis, Maryland, sponsored by Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas pledged to restart negotiations and aim for a peace treaty in 2008.
In an anniversary speech Monday that lasted almost an hour and a half, Abbas offered to talk to Hamas.
“There is no way for any party here to be an alternative to the other, and there is no room for terms like coup or military takeover, but only for dialogue, dialogue, dialogue,” he said.
Abbas called for “a new page, writing in its lines a credible agreement based on partnership, on life, on our homeland and our struggle to liberate it.”
Abbas maintained his position that Hamas must restore power in Gaza to an elected government. But he urged reconciliation and called for new elections in an effort to end the suffering the Palestinian people have endured as a result of the takeover.
Israel, citing security concerns, sealed its border with Gaza after Hamas wrested power, letting in only humanitarian aid. Ensuing shortages and skyrocketing prices have deepened poverty and unemployment in the already impoverished territory.
“I renew my offer for early elections here, as a way out of the hell that was imposed on us,” Abbas said.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum rejected Abbas’ speech. “It is full of incitement and words calling for divisions. There is no new initiative or practical step in this speech that can pave the road to start an immediate dialogue,” he said.
Hamas won January 2006 parliamentary elections and has rejected calls for another vote.
Abbas directed some of his comments Monday at Israel. He called on the Israeli government to cease settlement construction and dismantle its separation barrier in the West Bank, saying they “undermine the basis of the independent Palestinian state and block the two-state solution.” He also complained about Israeli army checkpoints in the West Bank, which have been set up to guard Israel against attackers, but seriously impede the movement of Palestinian people and goods. «There are 640 Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank and Israel did not lift or remove any of them,” he said.