GAZA, (Reuters) – Security forces from the Hamas Islamist movement clashed with protesters in the Gaza Strip on Friday, as members of the rival Fatah faction gathered to pray in defiance of a ban imposed on open-air gatherings.
Witnesses said that Hamas’s Executive Force members beat people, used stun grenades and fired in the air to try to prevent the gatherings. Medics said at least 11 people were taken to hospital for treatment, some with gun shot wounds.
Four senior Fatah officials and an advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were arrested during the protests and were taken for interrogation by the Executive Force.
Hamas deployed its forces in several Gaza locations to “prevent any action that may take place,” Youssef al-Zahar, an officer in the group’s security wing told reporters in Gaza City, at a spot where Fatah members gathered for weekly prayers. “Our religion encourages us to encourage people to pray, but we are trying to prevent people from using prayers to incite chaos and sabotage public property,” Zahar added as hundreds of armed Executive Force men took up positions on the streets.
Fatah lost control of the enclave in fighting with Hamas three months ago. Abbas retains control of the larger West Bank territory.
The last two Fridays have seen stone-throwing and arrests after open-air prayer meetings in Gaza, arranged by Fatah as a way of circumventing Hamas’s control of public demonstrations. However, Hamas, backed by some local clerical authority, this week outlawed the holding of prayers in the open.
On Thursday, the Executive Force vowed to use an “iron fist” against those who violate the ban. But Fatah leaders have urged their supporters to turn out in large numbers.
Abbas, in a statement on a local news agency, appealed for calm but accused Hamas of abusing mosques for politics. “We call upon worshippers to avoid friction or confrontation with the putschists and armed militias who do not shy from inflicting the ugliest oppression upon citizens,” Abbas said in the West Bank.
Fatah officials accused Hamas of killing one of their members overnight and said 26 of its members had been detained over the past day. An Executive Force spokesman, denied any Hamas involvement in the killing, in which a second Fatah man was wounded. He said an investigation was under way.