RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) – Palestinian families held funerals in the dead of night on Sunday for at least a dozen gunmen from a pro-al Qaeda group killed in fighting with the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers.
Hamas security forces, asserting their control over the southern town of Rafah along the Egyptian border, kept the public away from the burials.
At least 28 people have been killed since violence erupted on Friday between Hamas and the little-known pan-Arab group Warriors of God, whose leader had proclaimed an al Qaeda-style “emirate” in the Gaza Strip.
It was the most serious inter-factional Palestinian fighting in the territory since Hamas Islamist seized the enclave two years ago from President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah movement.
The Gaza Strip was largely quiet on Sunday.
Palestinian analysts said that by battling the Warriors of God, Hamas wanted to show Gazans it was in sole charge and demonstrate to the West that it could suppress more radical groups.
Western powers shun Hamas, which won a parliamentary election in 2006, for its refusal to end violence and accept Israel’s existence.
They are also calling on Israel, however, to ease a blockade that has prevented reconstruction since its devastating offensive in January and have been urging Hamas to bury the hatchet with Abbas and switch its focus to peace talks.
Hamas said the leader of the Warriors of God, Abdel-Latif Moussa, was dead — blown up by his own hand on Saturday with a Syrian ally after killing a mediator.
Bullet holes and shrapnel riddled the walls of a mosque where the pro-al Qaeda fighters had holed up. The fighting practically razed a block of houses in Rafah. Hamas said six of its fighters and six civilians were among the dead.
The violence exposed bitter tensions in the blockaded coastal strip, where Hamas has imposed its own nationalist brand of Islam while also seeking Western favor to end its international isolation.
Some of the dead were former Hamas men who wanted stricter Islamic rule in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights put the death toll at 28, with about 100 wounded.
Hamas officials said one of Moussa’s sons was also killed, along with an aide named Khaled Banat, known as Abu Mohammed al-Mujahir, a Syrian who they said was of Palestinian origin.
His presence challenged denials by Hamas leaders as recently as Friday that any foreign al Qaeda operatives were in Gaza.
Nonetheless, the isolation of Gaza’s 1.5 million people by an Israeli blockade backed by Egypt limits the territory’s use as an international base for al Qaeda.
The Warriors of God, one of several small groups in Gaza to espouse al Qaeda sympathies, first made their presence known with a border raid against an Israeli base in June when some of its fighters rode into battle on horseback. Three were killed.
Hamas also accuses the group of bombing Internet cafes.
Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Under interim peace deals, it retains control of the territory’s borders, in cooperation with Egypt.