GAZA, (Reuters) – A gun battle erupted outside the Gaza headquarters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas”s Fatah party on Wednesday, pitting rival gunmen against one another in a new sign of turmoil ahead of next month”s parliamentary polls.
Three people including a bystander were wounded in the clashes, which broke out after dozens of gunmen from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades poured into the building to demand jobs, complaining of discrimination.
They then clashed with rival gunmen, also from Fatah, who wanted them to leave. It was the third straight day of turmoil in Gaza, seen as a testing ground for Palestinian statehood following Israel”s pullout after 38 years of occupation.
The violence highlighted escalating divisions in Fatah ahead of elections due in January in which Hamas militant rivals are expected to mount a serious challenge to Fatah”s traditional dominance in parliament.
A flare-up of election-related violence in Gaza on Tuesday prompted Palestinian election officials to suspend operations, but Gaza offices re-opened on Wednesday after security forces were deployed outside to protect them.
The election, viewed as a test of Abbas”s leadership, comes as he is struggling to contain unrest in Gaza where factions are vying for sway after Israel”s pullout in September.
"We can”t allow a group or a handful of armed groups or militias to threaten the holding of elections in a fair and free environment. We can”t allow them to hijack the electoral process," West Bank lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said.
She said she would run for parliament on an independent ticket along with Salam Fayyad, who resigned as finance minister last month and has battled parliament over its refusal to implement fiscal reforms he recommended.
Militants, worried they will not be fairly represented on Fatah”s ticket following complaints about the handling of the ruling party”s primary ballot, have stormed election offices in recent days demanding a delay in the Jan. 25 poll.
They want elections postponed so that Fatah can repeat party primaries that were halted in some areas following fraud allegations and violence by gunmen, some from the al-Aqsa group.
The gunmen, who spent years battling Israel but sometimes felt marginalised in Fatah because of the dominance of Old Guard leaders, fear unless Fatah picks its candidates in a popular vote it would have a hard time beating back Hamas at the polls.
But with only a few hours remaining to officially register candidates for the elections, new primaries appeared unlikely. Extending Wednesday”s registration deadline would risk delaying the polls, which Abbas has vowed to hold on time even as fears rise that voting could be marred by violence.
In the last parliamentary polls in 1996, Yasser Arafat selected all the candidates. This time, a year after Arafat”s death, Fatah”s leadership was pressured into holding primaries by members challenging an Old Guard widely seen as corrupt.
In a separate incident further highlighting lawlessness in Gaza, gunmen in the southern town of Rafah briefly took over the offices of the Palestinian national telephone company. They demanded cancellation of some fees paid by the public for installation of telephone lines, and gave 48 hours to comply.