GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, AP – The militant group Hamas and rival Fatah agreed early Sunday to work to end tension that erupted in violent clashes and mass protests across the Palestinians areas after a Hamas leader accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of treachery. But the friction threatened to boil over again with neither side backing down from its key demands in vying for control of the Palestinian security forces.
The two sides traded gunfire and hurled stones and firebombs Saturday, escalating a fierce power struggle between the militant and moderate factions. Abbas said Saturday he would not allow the accusations to plunge the Palestinians into civil war.
In a meeting that began late Saturday, Hamas and Fatah officials agreed to calm the hostilities.
“The two movements have agreed to call on our Palestinian masses to stop all displays that might lead to tension,” Fatah official Maher Mekdad said, reading a joint statement after the meeting. “They agreed to work together to strengthen the national unity.”
Outside the meeting, thousands of Fatah supporters shouted anti-Hamas slogans. No agreement was reached in the meeting on the control of the security forces, participants said.
The unrest followed the president’s recent moves to take control of all six security forces and Hamas’s response that it would form its own shadow army, made up of militants and headed by a top fugitive Israel has been hunting for years.
Abbas’ prompt veto of that plan provoked a scathing comment late Friday from ruling Hamas party’s political chief, Khaled Mashaal.
“We can understand that Israel and America are persecuting us, and seeking ways to besiege and starve us, but what about the sons of our people who are plotting against us, who are following a studied plan to make us fail,” Mashaal said from his base in Syria, without mentioning Abbas by name.
Fatah’s senior leaders promptly accused Mashaal of “igniting and preparing for civil war.” Tens of thousands of party loyalists took to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, protesting Mashaal’s remarks and demanding an apology.
Clashes were ugliest Saturday in Gaza City, where Hamas and Fatah followers traded gunfire and hurled grenades and firebombs. Hundreds of university students threw stones over the wall separating Hamas- and Fatah-run schools. Fifteen people were wounded, two seriously.
Later Saturday, hundreds of Fatah activists marched to Gaza’s parliament compound, throwing stones and shattering windows in a government building.
Elsewhere across Gaza and the West Bank, tens of thousands of Fatah backers marched through the streets of cities, towns and refugee camps, denouncing Mashaal as a “dirty animal,” setting tires ablaze and waving yellow party flags.
In Nablus, Fatah-affiliated gunmen stormed a courthouse, ejected dozens of employees, ordered guards to lock up the building and vowed not to reopen it until Mashaal apologized.
Abbas, a peace-seeking moderate whose Fatah party was ousted from power in January elections, has been trying to shore up his already considerable powers to better serve as a counterweight to Hamas’ militantly anti-Israel program.
He refused to directly address Mashaal’s comments, saying he wanted to avert further tensions in the Palestinian territories and would instead tackle the matter through unspecified “quiet political channels.”
He did say there were significant gaps between his policy and Hamas’, including the Islamic movement’s refusal to accept past peace agreements with Israel.
“We must find solutions, we must reach a middle ground,” he said. “In the meantime, we don’t want the situation to escalate, we will not allow a civil war and we will not tolerate military confrontations.”
His sentiments were echoed by Fatah lawmaker Mohammed Dahlan who appealed to Fatah loyalists to “show self-restraint and protect the national unity.”
Hamas officials tried to distance the government from Mashaal’s remarks, saying they reflected his own opinion, and not the government’s. But at the same time, the government remained committed to forming its army of thousands of militants.
Interior Minister Said Siyam, who announced the new force earlier the week, told a news conference Saturday he would pursue his plans — despite the presidential decree — and would meet with the force’s designated head, fugitive Jamal Abu Samhadana, to discuss when he would take over his new duties.
At an emergency meeting in Gaza, Rafiq Husseini, a top Abbas adviser, told Mohammed Awad, Hamas’ Cabinet secretary, that Abbas was determined to block the Hamas security force. The two decided to meet again later along with Egyptian security officials who arrived in Gaza on Saturday.
Hamas’ refusal to disarm and recognize Israel has already cost it hundreds of millions of dollars in Western aid and Israeli transfer payments. The Palestinians’ sense that they are under siege internationally has intensified friction in the already volatile West Bank and Gaza.
On Saturday, Communications Minister Jamal Khodari said that during his recent visit to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, leaders there had pledged $71 million to the empty Palestinian treasury. The financial crisis has prevented Hamas from paying April salaries to 140,000 government employees, and Khodari told a news conference that those wages would be paid immediately after the money from Qatar and the UAE comes in.
Nabil Amr, another Abbas aide, said Saturday that the U.S. has warned international banks not to transfer money to the Hamas-led government — the first time a Palestinian official has acknowledged such U.S. pressure.