KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza, (Reuters) – Unidentified gunmen dragged a judge from the Hamas Islamist movement out of a taxi and shot him dead in front of his courthouse in Gaza on Wednesday, increasing fears of a Palestinian civil war.
Officials from the governing Hamas said Bassam al-Fara was a judge in a civil court who also belonged to the group’s armed wing. The death came two days after gunmen killed three sons of a Gaza intelligence chief linked to Hamas’s rival faction Fatah.
Witnesses who declined to be identified told Reuters that the gunmen had eaten breakfast in a nearby restaurant in the town of Khan Younis while waiting for Fara, 28, to arrive. They shot him at point blank range after pulling him from the car.
Violence has spiralled in Gaza and the occupied West Bank between Hamas and the more moderate Fatah, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, after attempts to form a national unity government failed.
Some Abbas aides have said he might call early elections in a speech on Saturday to break the deadlock and ease Western sanctions imposed on the government because of Hamas’s refusal to recognise Israel and renounce violence. But they said he would leave the door open to talks. Abbas, a cautious leader, is probably reluctant to stoke tensions with dramatic announcements at a time when emotions are running high.
Hamas, which accuses Fatah of trying to topple its government, issued a statement blaming the killing on a Fatah “death squad”. “The seekers of the coup in Fatah bear the responsibility
for all actions of chaos taking place in the Palestinian streets,” senior Hamas politician Mushir al-Masri told Reuters.
Fatah denied responsibility. But in a statement to Reuters, Fatah accused Fara of having been involved in the killing of one of its Gaza activists in October.
At least 10,000 people marched in Fara’s funeral procession in Khan Younis. Hamas activists vowed revenge, shouting: “The servants of darkness will be found, stepped on and crushed.”
In nearby Nusseirat, a pipe-bomb was thrown at another Hamas rally, wounding a marcher. The assailant’s identity was unclear.
Earlier, some 2,000 Fatah gunmen marched to the president’s Gaza City office and urged him to sack the government over the collapse in law and order. Before arriving, they blocked roads and fired automatic weapons into the air.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, criticised the deployment in Gaza of security forces affiliated to Abbas and said the movement’s surprise election victory over Fatah in January should be accepted.
“The comprehensive solution to this situation is to respect the will of the Palestinian people,” Haniyeh told a news conference in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, which he was visiting as part of his first Arab tour since taking office.
Haniyeh said he would return to Gaza on Thursday, though his tour was originally expected to keep him away until January.
In the West Bank town of Jenin, Palestinian security sources said police shot and killed a militant from a group belonging to Fatah after he had opened fire on them.
A senior official from Fatah has said the Hamas government bore responsibility for Monday’s unprecedented attack on children, which has shocked even Palestinians inured to incessant conflict. Hamas has denied the movement was involved.
Security forces loyal to Abbas traded gunfire with Hamas policemen in Gaza on Tuesday, wounding four people.
Besides internal political unrest, Gaza is riven with clan fighting and a surge in crime following the Western aid embargo that has deepened poverty.