BETHLEHEM, West Bank, (Reuters) – Palestinian gunmen briefly seized Bethlehem city hall, overlooking the Church of the Nativity, on Tuesday in a jarring interruption to Christmas preparations in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
The incident, five days before Christmas, was another sign of growing lawlessness in Palestinian territories and the turmoil within Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas”s Fatah faction ahead of a January parliamentary election.
About 20 gunmen from Fatah”s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades fanned out on rooftops and in the offices of city hall, firing several shots in the air and forcing workers out. They demanded money and jobs for about 320 members.
Masked gunmen carrying assault rifles appeared beside the glittering star set up on the roof ahead of festivities.
Witnesses said that the gunmen left after about an hour after Bethlehem”s governor promised to address their demand for jobs and pay.
"What happened in Bethlehem is regrettable, especially as it comes at a time when the city is preparing itself for Christmas festivities," said Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh.
The episode revived memories of a five-week standoff between the Israeli army and a band of gunmen who took over the Nativity church in 2002.
Bethlehem has only just begun to recover from the siege, which turned the town into a virtual war zone and badly damaged its tourism industry.
As the drama in Bethlehem unfolded, about a 100 al-Aqsa brigades gunmen took over the local Fatah offices in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis to demand jobs for members.
Abbas”s Fatah faction has been split ahead of a January 25 parliamentary election in a power struggle between veteran leaders tainted by corruption and a young guard seeking a bigger share of power.
In an ultimatum to Abbas, the Gaza gunmen said they would prevent foreigners from entering Gaza and would lead a boycott against the election unless the Palestinian leader found jobs for militants in the security forces.
"We will also split from Fatah if our rights are not achieved," one of the gunmen said.