GAZA,(Reuters) – Palestinian police fought gunbattles in Gaza City on Friday with a new Hamas-led security force set up by the Islamist government in defiance of President Mahmoud Abbas.
At least four people were wounded in the first fighting since Hamas deployed the force on Wednesday. Two police, one Hamas member and a gunman from Abbas’s Fatah movement were hurt.
Clashes sent terrified residents fleeing from the night-time streets of Gaza City, where tension has soared amid fears of civil war. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the emergence of rival security forces a “dangerous situation”.
Members of the Hamas force, mostly bearded young militants who fought Israel in an uprising for years, surrounded the main police station in Gaza City and traded fire with security men taking cover inside.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said fighting subsided after contacts between the forces. He accused unidentified “suspicious gunmen” of opening fire to instigate the clash.
“There is no reason for the two forces to fight. There is no dispute of authority,” said Khaled Abu Hilal. Police accused Hamas of starting the clashes by opening fire on the police station.
The 3,000-strong Hamas-backed force, formed under the authority of Interior Minister Saeed Seyam, was deployed in a challenge to the authority of Abbas, whose Fatah movement was defeated by Hamas in elections in January.
In response, Abbas ordered the deployment of a Fatah-loyal police unit. The decision marked the latest step in a deepening power struggle between Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, whose Hamas movement took power in March.
The rival deployments followed growing insecurity in Gaza, with at least five rival gunmen killed this month.
“It seems that the civil war has begun,” said one medic, who did not want to give his name. Gunfire echoed as he spoke.
The Fatah gunman was shot in front of the hospital as he pleaded that he was nothing to do with the clashes. Gunmen with weapons cocked peered warily around street corners in the densely populated seaside city.
Abbas loyalists have far more forces under their control than Hamas, but many of them are poorly equipped.
Tensions have been exacerbated by a financial crisis since Hamas took control. Western donors have cut funding to the aid-dependent Palestinian Authority to try to force Hamas to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept past peace agreements.
Hamas is formally committed to destroying the Jewish state, though it has largely followed a truce for more than a year.
Abbas seeks to revive negotiations for a Palestinian state in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
The United States, leading the campaign to isolate Hamas, has put its faith in Abbas, who was elected in 2005 on a platform of peacemaking. Rice said in Washington that she hoped the situation of rival security forces could be resolved.
“We obviously believe that President Abbas, who we believe has the confidence of the Palestinian people, should be able to exercise his responsibilities as president of the country,” she told reporters.
Gaza has grown accustomed to bloodshed during years of clashes with Israeli forces, who withdrew from the territory in 2005, but internal strife is a more horrifying prospect for many residents.