GAZA, (Reuters) – Gunbattles raged between Hamas loyalists and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s forces in Gaza on Tuesday, killing at least three people and reviving fears the strip could slip into civil war.
Internal Palestinian fighting — the worst in a decade — has escalated since Abbas called on Saturday for early elections in an attempt to break a political deadlock with the Hamas government. Hamas has accused Abbas of launching a “coup”.
Both Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah movement blamed each other for the sudden upsurge in major street fighting in Gaza City, where gunmen fought with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Civilians fled for their safety. Many shops closed. The clashes have effectively buried a truce that had been agreed on Sunday night.
Two security men from a force loyal to Fatah were killed in a running street battle with Hamas gunmen in Gaza City, hospital officials said.
Hamas and Fatah traded blame on who started the fight and how the two men were killed. Five children were also wounded after getting caught in cross-fire.
Witnesses and rival factions said a Hamas policeman was killed in an earlier clash at the entrance and inside the compound of the main Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Rocket-propelled grenades were fired in that incident. Around a dozen people have been wounded in total. Clashes also erupted outside a key security agency controlled by Abbas.
Abbas told visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday he was committed to early elections but left the door open for the formation of a Fatah-Hamas coalition with a “technocrat” cabinet that could satisfy Western countries.
Hamas and Fatah tried for months to form a unity government to end a power struggle, but talks foundered. Hamas beat Fatah in January elections.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, is expected to make a major speech in Gaza at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) to respond to Abbas’s election call. Hamas has said it would boycott any polls.
In Damascus, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said the election call was illegal and that Hamas would take practical steps to stop early elections taking place using “peaceful, popular pressure — not with violence”, the BBC reported.
Hamas, which advocates Israel’s destruction, has struggled to govern since taking office in March under the weight of Western sanctions imposed because of its refusal to recognise the Jewish state and renounce violence.
The West has sought to bolster Abbas, who favours a two-state solution to end conflict with Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in an apparent effort to shore up Abbas, said after meeting Blair that Israel planned to set up a joint committee with Palestinian officials that would discuss releasing Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
A major amnesty could help Israel recover a soldier whose abduction by Gazan gunmen in June pushed Israeli-Palestinian relations to a new low in more than six years of fighting.
While a Gaza truce declared by Abbas and Olmert last month has largely held, Israel has kept up military action in the West Bank.
Israeli commandos shot dead a Fatah militant in the West Bank city of Nablus on Tuesday, witnesses said. An Israeli army spokeswoman said the militant tried to evade arrest. A second wanted militant was detained, she said.