GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – A tenuous cease-fire between rival Fatah and Hamas forces appeared to be holding Thursday, and shellshocked residents emerged from their homes to stock up on food and supplies after four days of intense fighting brought the city to a standstill.
The lull cleared the way for a visit by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was expected to travel from his West Bank headquarters to Gaza later Thursday for talks with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
The infighting has left the Hamas-Fatah coalition government on the brink of collapse, and threatened to drag Israel into the fray.
Presidential aide Saeb Erekat declined to say when the meeting would take place, and warned that visit could still be called off if things deteriorated. “The plan is that he will go to Gaza. But there is a possibility he will not go,” Erekat said.
Erekat said the talks would focus on Abbas’ plan to end the infighting and chaos that has plagued Gaza for months. “This is to preserve our social fabric, our society, our internal peace,” he said. “Without this, we’re doomed.”
A total of 22 people were killed on Wednesday, as gunfire and explosions raged across Gaza City in the most widespread fighting of nearly a year of clashes between Hamas and Fatah. A total of 46 people have been killed in this week’s fighting, according to Palestinian officials.
Raging street battles have turned the densely populated seaside city into a war zone, putting terrified civilians increasingly at risk. During the fighting, masked gunmen took over otherwise deserted streets, trapping frightening residents in their homes.
Early Thursday, gunmen were still manning roadblocks, and Fatah security forces were patrolling on six Russian-made armored personnel carriers with guns mounted on top. But there were no reports of fighting.
Electric workers tried to repair wires destroyed in the fighting to restore power, and residents flooded grocery stores in search of bread, bottled water, diapers and candles.
Ghassan Abu al-Qas, a grocery store owner, said business was brisk. “I have run out of cigarettes and I’m almost out of mineral water. I don’t have many diapers left,” he said. The only item that wasn’t selling was newspapers, he said. “No one has asked to buy newspapers,” he said. It remained unclear how long the truce would last. Previous attempts to halt the fighting this week have quickly broken down.
The violence has left the fragile unity government in tatters, though Fatah and Hamas leaders have said they hope to preserve the coalition. A main goal of the alliance, formed in March, was to halt months of factional violence, but the unity deal never addressed a key area of dispute, control over Palestinian security forces.
The latest round of violence erupted Sunday after Abbas deployed thousands of police officers to halt a crime wave in Gaza without first consulting with Hamas.
The attacks have grown increasingly brazen, with Hamas ambushing a strategic Fatah training base and killing six bodyguards in an assassination attempt on a top Fatah security commander. The commander was not at home at the time and his family escaped harm Hamas also has targeted Israel, firing more than 70 rockets in an apparent attempt to drag Israel into the conflict and uniting the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Security Cabinet decided against large-scale reprisal late Wednesday, but authorized the army to step up attacks on Hamas rocket squads. Two Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets Wednesday killed five people, Palestinian officials said. “We have had enough. Israel will take every defensive measure to stop these rocket attacks,» said Miri Eisin, Olmert’s spokeswoman, adding Israel would not allow itself to be dragged into internal Palestinian fighting. “We will not stand idly by.” The army said five rockets landed Thursday in the southern border town of Sderot, lightly wounding two people. The working-class town has absorbed the vast majority of the thousands of rockets fired at Israel in recent years. An explosion rocked a Hamas camp in northern Gaza on Thursday. Palestinian officials said the blast was caused by an Israeli airstrike. But the army denied involvement. There were no reports of casualties.