GAZA, (Reuters) – Gunmen from the ruling Palestinian movement Fatah traded fire with police and shut election offices in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday in a new challenge to President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of next month”s election.
The gunmen demanded changes to the latest proposed list of election candidates, which was due to be submitted by Abbas on Wednesday as a way to patch up a damaging split between Fatah veterans and younger rivals.
The internal Palestinian squabbles, clashes with Israel, and the prospect of Israel”s own elections early next year have stalled any hopes of peacemaking in the near future.
The growing violence has driven some officials to urge Abbas to postpone the election, in which Hamas Islamic militants stand to benefit from the confusion within long-dominant Fatah.
Gunmen from Fatah”s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades exchanged fire with police in two separate firefights. One policeman was wounded before the militants were driven off. Tense police, masked like the gunmen, patrolled near election offices.
Elsewhere, al-Aqsa fighters forced at least three offices to close, though the electoral commission said work was resuming in some places after police restored order.
"Our voices have been lost," said Abu Zakariya, leader of the group that shut the Khan Younis office, demanding a re-run of party rimaries or a postponement of the ballot itself.
Abbas has said he does not want a delay and Hamas, contesting parliamentary polls for the first time, has said it could not accept one.
In order to face the challenge from Hamas, a breakaway faction of the Fatah young guard announced formally on Wednesday that it was reuniting with Abbas”s mainstream to present a single list of election candidates.
The list is to be headed by uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi, jailed by Israel for a role in militant attacks.
The election is crucial for Abbas to establish his authority and implement his agenda of talks with Israel and internal reform. He hopes to bring Hamas on board through the ballot and then persuade them to put aside their weapons.
At meetings in Gaza on Tuesday, Abbas tried to get militant leaders to agree to halt cross-border rocket fire and renew their pledge to follow a ceasefire that brought 10 months of relative calm.
But a leader of Islamic Jihad, which has carried out suicide bombings despite the truce and fired regular rocket salvoes, said he did not believe there would be a ceasefire extension.
"When the time is up there will be a general position, but calm will most likely not be extended," said Khaled al-Batsh.
Hamas has suggested its comparative restraint could end if elections are not held on time.
The most recent flare-up has been concentrated around northern Gaza, from where militants have fired rockets into Israel in what they call retaliation for raids in the occupied West Bank as well as strikes on Gaza.
Israeli aircraft fired missiles into the Gaza Strip early on Wednesday and the army said it had targeted three routes used by militants firing rockets. There were no reports of casualties.
Continued rocket firing could be a blow to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he campaigns to win re-election for a third term on the back of the largely popular Gaza withdrawal.
Sharon has said that he wants to pursue peacemaking with the Palestinians, but will discuss statehood only after the militant factions are disarmed — something the Palestinians are meant to begin under a U.S.-backed peace "road map".
Israel has flouted its own road map promise to freeze the expansion of Jewish settlements and Sharon has vowed to keep major blocs forever. The Palestinians fear that could deny them the state they seek in all the West Bank and Gaza.