GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Ferocious gunbattles broke out between Hamas and Fatah militants in the Gaza Strip and West Bank early Friday, underscoring the fragility of a new truce between the rival factions. A Hamas militiaman injured in violence that touched off the Gaza City shootout died of his wounds.
In other tension between the two factions, the office of President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah blocked five major Hamas appointments to senior government positions earlier this week. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas accused Abbas of trying to subvert the government’s authority by refusing to authorize the appointments.
Abbas’ power struggle with Hamas turned violent earlier this month after he declared that efforts to form a more moderate coalition government with the militantly anti-Israel Islamic group had broken down.
The street battle early Friday in Gaza City, which encompassed Abbas’ residence and the home of Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar of Hamas, broke out as Hamas militiamen tried to free two fighters kidnapped Thursday.
In the charged atmosphere pervading Gaza, the firefight quickly spread out of control. Within minutes, it encompassed the presidential guard outside Abbas’ house, other security officers in the area and the Hamas militiamen guarding Zahar’s home and the nearby Foreign Ministry building.
Gunmen manning strategic rooftop positions began shooting at other armed men in the streets.
The presidential guard took up defensive positions behind newly built walls of sandbags and cement block barriers outside the residence of Abbas, who was not in Gaza at the time. Hamas officials said Fatah gunmen shot at Zahar’s home.
One witness estimated that more than 2,000 bullets were fired in the first 10 minutes of the shootout, and several rocket-propelled grenades were also launched. Despite the scale and intensity of the fighting, no one was wounded, health officials said.
Residents of the neighborhood, the scene of other gunbattles over the past week, said they put their children in bathtubs for protection against stray bullets. Others tucked themselves in corners for safety. The violence died down after about 20 minutes as Muslim clerics and other mediators worked to restore calm.
A Hamas militiaman injured in the course of the kidnapping Thursday, yman Jirjawi, died of his wounds early Friday, said Islam Shahwan, a militia spokesman.
Hamas accused a Fatah-linked clan of carrying out the abduction to avenge the deaths of two clan members in factional fighting in Gaza last week. The fighting left 16 people dead and dozens injured before the truce took effect Tuesday night.
The internal violence has been mostly confined to Gaza, but fighting spilled over to the West Bank town of Nablus Friday morning. Witnesses and medics said about a dozen gunmen from Hamas and Fatah clashed near a soccer stadium where Hamas men were preparing for a rally. Palestinian medics said a bystander was wounded in the crossfire. Terrified residents huddled in their homes.
Tiham Tufah, who lives near the stadium, said she hid with her husband and two daughters in their living room. “We feel caught in the middle of a big war, and we are really afraid,” Tufah said. “We can’t leave the house or look out the window. We live in fear.”
The factional fighting, the violent mirror of Abbas’ power struggle with Hamas, also played out on the bureaucratic level Friday. In a letter to the office of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, Abbas chief of staff Rafiq Husseini said five proposed Hamas appointments were illegal, in some cases because the positions were not actually vacant or did not exist.
The letter said other proposed appointments would be blocked on the same ground.
In a related development, a top Abbas aide, Azzam al-Ahmed, reiterated the Palestinian president’s offer on Thursday to resume coalition talks with Hamas, but said it would only be good for a week or two.
Abbas had hoped a more moderate coalition between Hamas and his Fatah would allow the West to resume desperately needed aid, cut off to pressure the Hamas government to recognize Israel and renounce violence.
The Palestinian infighting coincided with stepped-up Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel, destabilizing a shaky cease-fire between militant factions and Israel. One rocket was fired early Friday, in addition to six launched on Thursday. The attacks Thursday caused no injuries to Israelis, but wounded three Palestinian children when a rocket veered off course, hospital officials and a relative said.
Israeli officials say Palestinian militants have fired nearly 50 rockets since the Nov. 26 truce took effect. Israel has not retaliated, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned this week that his patience was wearing thin.