GAZA, (Reuters) – At least eight people, including two foreign journalists, were hurt in Gaza when thousands of men from the Fatah movement used open-air Friday prayers to protest against the Hamas Islamist takeover of the Palestinian enclave.
Hamas security forces arrested a number of people in angry scenes but most worshippers dispersed quietly, while factional tensions in the territory continue to simmer.
Six Palestinian youths were injured by what appeared to be stun grenades as Fatah supporters threw rocks at the home of a leading Hamas figure in the southern town of Rafah, medics said.
Two French television journalists were slightly hurt in a similar incident outside a police station in Gaza City. It was unclear who set off the small blasts.
Thousands of Fatah men, loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas, attended the prayers in the latest sign of a renewed defiance on the part of the long-dominant secular movement following the rout of its forces by Hamas in the Gaza Strip in June.
Shots were also fired after the prayers in Gaza City and witnesses spoke of several men beaten or arrested by Hamas security men after some from the departing crowd threw rocks at the Interior Ministry building.
A spokesman for Hamas’s Executive Force security wing confirmed several people were arrested, but most protesters dispersed. He said tensions did not boil over as had been feared following clashes at a similar rally last week.
Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister in the Palestinian government dismissed by Abbas in June, said weekly prayers were being exploited for political ends and accused protesters of “defiling the sanctity of worship”.
Fahmi al-Zahrir, a Fatah spokesman in the West Bank, said the secular group would continue to protest Hamas’s Gaza takeover until it is ended and accused the group of being undemocratic. “Fatah activists held prayers outside mosques and in public places as a message to Hamas against their use of the mosques for political propaganda and conspiracy. They continue their aggression against freedom of speech and journalists,” he said.
After similar protests last Friday, Hamas security forces fired in the air and arrested a number of people, including journalists.
This week, Hamas fighters deployed in visibly large numbers ahead of the prayers but the Islamist group denied a Fatah claim it detained dozens of Fatah supporters overnight.
Yellow Fatah flags fluttered over the gatherings and from rooftops. A preacher at the Gaza City rally urged worshippers to put aside factional differences and unite against Israel. “Mosques should be independent of armed difference and dispute,” cleric Rushdi al-Zayan told the crowd. “We are one people and our enemy is one. We should unite against our enemy.” Fatah says hundreds of its supporters have een detained in Gaza since the Hamas takeover but most have been freed. Hamas says over 400 of its followers have been held in the West Bank.
Many Fatah militants have fled Gaza, mainly to the larger West Bank territory, where Western-backed Abbas retains power. Hamas has said any arrests of anyone affiliated with Fatah were strictly non-political. Strasbourg-based Arte television named the two journalists who were hurt as camerman Fred Bak and reporter Barbara Lohr.