GAZA, (Reuters) – Unidentified gunmen shot dead a Muslim cleric after he delivered a sermon in the Gaza Strip on Friday calling for an end to fierce factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah, hospital officials and local residents said.
The cleric’s shooting in central Gaza came hours after Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said he and President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah had agreed to keep rival gunmen off Gaza’s streets after clashes in which eight were killed.
Tension remained high across the coastal strip as thousands of Palestinians loyal to Fatah took part in funeral marches for a commander killed in a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades fired by Hamas gunmen on Thursday.
Brushing aside Haniyeh’s plea for calm, Fatah issued a harshly worded statement in Gaza: “Blood for blood and aggression for aggression… and all the sons of the movement should retaliate to each aggression openly.”
The Muslim cleric, who was in a car when the gunmen opened fire, was affiliated with neither Hamas nor Fatah. No group claimed responsibility for the shooting, which occurred after services at a mosque in the Maghazi refugee camp.
Residents said the cleric had sharply criticised internal fighting in his Friday sermon.
At one of the funeral marches, members of Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades threatened to assassinate Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar and Interior Minister Saeed Seyam of Hamas. “Zahar and Seyam, you have to leave Gaza. We will tear your bodies to pieces,” an al-Aqsa member screamed through a megaphone as gunmen fired into the air.
Overnight, Hamas-controlled militants and police forces stormed the house of senior Fatah leader Sufian Abu Zaida in northern Gaza Strip, smashing furniture. Abu Zaida, a former cabinet minister, was unhurt.
Factional fighting has surged in Gaza and the occupied West Bank since Abbas challenged the ruling Hamas faction by calling for early parliamentary and presidential elections after talks on forming a unity government failed.
Haniyeh said after late-night emergency talks with Abbas, their first meeting in two months, that they had agreed to “withdraw all gunmen from the streets and deploy police forces to keep law and order”.
Abbas made no public comment, but a diplomat who attended the talks and declined to be identified confirmed an agreement had been reached.
Similar pacts in the past have quickly been shattered by violence and Gazans said they feared another eruption of bloodshed later in the day when Thursday’s dead are buried.
In a move that could fuel tension, Washington will provide $86 million to strengthen security forces loyal to Abbas, expanding U.S. involvement in Fatah’s power struggle with Hamas.
In fighting between rival Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, Fatah gunmen killed a policeman loyal to Hamas.
Hamas gunmen, blaming the shooting on bodyguards of Colonel Mohammed Ghareeb of the Preventive Security Service, besieged his home in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, killing Ghareeb and six of his men and wounding his wife.
Some Fatah gunmen expressed anger at Abbas for not sending forces to save Ghareeb, who had pleaded for help on Palestinian television.
The fighting spread overnight to the occupied West Bank, where gunmen critically wounded a Hamas activist near the city of Nablus, Hamas officials said. “Hamas and Fatah, you are brothers, please stop the fighting,” cried an elderly woman as Ghareeb’s funeral passed her house in the Jabalya refugee camp.
Haniyeh told reporters: “The battle is not an internal battle, it is a battle against the occupation.”
Earlier on Friday, Israeli forces raided the village of Attil near the West Bank town of Tulkarm. The army said two members of Islamic Jihad were seized.
On Thursday, Israeli forces mounted a rare raid into the West Bank city of Ramallah in which hospital officials said four Palestinians were killed and at least 25 wounded.
In Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement it welcomed the Abbas-Haniyeh meeting but considered Israel’s raid into Ramallah inflammatory. “This operation led to new victims among peaceful Palestinian citizens,” it said.