ABASSAN, Gaza Strip, AP -Militants from the Hamas and Fatah movements clashed with assault rifles and shoulder-held missiles Monday, killing three people in the latest sign the rivals could be heading toward a large-scale confrontation.
The groups fought again on Tuesday in downtown Gaza City, wounding nine people, including five children.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas called for restraint and ordered his security chief to impose order. But tensions remained high as the sides accused each other of instigating the violence.
Friction has been rising since the Islamic militant group Hamas ended Fatah’s four-decade control of Palestinian politics with a victory in January parliament elections.
Haniyeh and moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah have been wrangling over power, particularly over control of security forces. The friction has been compounded by a growing financial crisis, the result of Western economic sanctions against the Hamas-led government.
The two leaders met twice over the weekend but failed to resolve their differences.
Monday’s violence began before dawn in the farming community of Abassan in southeastern Gaza. Hamas tried to kidnap a Fatah member, apparently to settle an old score, said Fatah spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa.
The kidnapping ignited several hours of violence that included more kidnappings and fire fights, including one exchange that sent civilians ducking for cover. One Hamas militant was killed. All captives were released after negotiations.
At one point, Hamas gunmen ambushed Fatah militants driving on the main road in two jeeps with red government license plates. One jeep was hit by a shoulder-held missile, killing two Fatah gunmen who were also members of the security forces. The second vehicle was riddled with bullets.
The clashes Tuesday erupted after Hamas gunmen opened fire on Fatah activists at the home of a top Fatah official, witnesses said. The Fatah gunmen returned fire and nine were injured in the exchange, including five children, officials said.
According to Hamas officials, bodyguards working for a top Fatah leader had kidnapped three members of the Hamas military wing earlier in the day and the Hamas gunmen had gone to try to free them. Fatah officials denied the accusations.
Haniyeh called on both sides for restraint, saying he had asked his interior minister, Said Siyam, to impose order. He did not elaborate.
“I call on the leaders of Hamas and Fatah to take full responsibility in order to stop these incidents, which have created ill feelings,” Haniyeh told reporters in Gaza City.
But tensions remained high. About 2,000 people attended a funeral Monday for the dead Hamas militant, where the group accused Fatah of “spreading false allegations in order to increase tensions.”
Fatah officials accused Hamas of starting the fighting.
“We call on the (Hamas-controlled) Interior Ministry to act against those who are gambling with the security of our people and to punish them,” said a statement issued by the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a Fatah-linked militant group. “Otherwise our rifles will act to punish the guilty people.”
Rival Palestinian groups have managed in the past to pull back from the brink of civil war. However, in the increasingly heated climate, it could be increasingly difficult to put a lid on fighting.
With tensions rising, each group has been training its gunmen for possible confrontation, and Hamas recently outbid Fatah in buying a black market shipment of 100,000 bullets.
Abbas, who was elected separately last year and favors peace talks with Israel, still wields considerable authority. He has stripped the Hamas government of many of its powers and has been trying to get the international community to work through him and bypass Hamas.
The United States and the European Union consider Hamas, officially sworn to Israel’s destruction, a terrorist organization. They have cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the government, demanding Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel. Hamas has rejected the demands.
The sanctions, combined with Israel’s refusal to transfer $55 million in monthly tax revenues it collects for the Palestinian Authority, have made it impossible for the cash-strapped Hamas government to pay its 165,000 workers.
The government is the biggest employer in the Palestinian territories, and the cash crunch is reverberating throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
In a new report Monday, the World Bank said the crisis is more alarming than projected and warned of a looming humanitarian crisis, increased violence and the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
It said 2006 is shaping up to be “the worst year in the West Bank and Gaza’s dismal recent economic history.”