GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Masked gunmen seized three Hamas militants outside a mosque Wednesday, shot them and dumped them with stomach and leg injuries a gas station, the latest round in an increasingly bloody power struggle in volatile Gaza. One of the Hamas men later died of his wounds at a hospital.
Hamas blamed the rival Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas for the shooting near the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis. Hamas activists said the kidnappers were also members of the Preventive Security Service, a security branch allied with Abbas.
The death of the Hamas militant brought to nine the number of people killed in armed clashes between Hamas and Fatah this month. Fighting intensified last week, after the Hamas government deployed its own 3,000-strong force of militants.
In a twist in the power struggle, a new unit of gunmen made its debut on Wednesday. Some 3,000 teens and young men, wearing black T-shirts and bandanas, marched in Gaza City and professed their support for the Hamas militia, even though the logos on their clothing identified them as members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent Fatah offshoot. About 500 of the marchers were armed.
Fatah leaders immediately distanced themselves from the unit. The gunmen’s commander, Khaled Abu Hilal, is a former Fatah member who has since been disowned by Fatah and serves as spokesman of the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry.
Wednesday’s shooting came a day after Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and senior Fatah leaders met in Gaza to try to sort out their differences. Haniyeh pledged the fighting would not escalate into civil war, but during the meeting was non-committal when asked by Fatah to withdraw the Hamas militia.
Wednesday’s incident began after morning prayers when the three Hamas militants emerged from morning prayers at a mosque near the town of Khan Younis. A car with masked gunmen pulled up, bundled the Hamas members into the vehicle and sped off, Hamas officials said.
About 15 minutes later, the three Hamas men were found lying in the street, near a gas station. Two had been shot in the legs and the third in the abdomen and leg. Hamas officials said the man with the stomach and leg injuries died at a nearby hospital. He was identified as Salem Kadih, 22.
Hamas said the assailants were members of Preventive Security. Fatah declined comment. In other developments Wednesday, Israeli Justice Minister Cabinet Haim Ramon said Israel will move with plans to draw its final borders if Hamas does not recognize Israel and renounce violence within six months. Ramon, a close associate of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, spoke just hours after President George W. Bush referred in surprisingly warm tones to the Israeli leader’s plan to withdraw unilaterally from chunks of the West Bank. Bush called the idea “an important step” toward peace.
Ramon reiterated that Hamas must recognize Israel, accept past peace agreements and renounce violence before peace talks can begin. “If these things don’t happen, we won’t wait for years, but rather we will wait until the end of this year,” Ramon told Israel Radio. “This will be a year of diplomacy.”
“First negotiations, and after the negotiations, if it doesn’t succeed and it becomes clear that there is no (Palestinian) partner, we will move ahead with the consolidation plan,” Ramon said, referring to the withdrawal.
Dov Weissglass, one of Olmert’s most senior advisers, said that if negotiations fail, “Israel will carry out a broad unilateral process that will in the end leave in Israel’s hands the … large settlement blocs.” Weisglass spoke to Israel Army Radio from Washington.
In another radio, with Israel Radio, Weisglass said that Israel will have contacts with the moderate Abbas, but will not hold peace talks with him unless Hamas changes its positions.
“There can be other talks, coordinating different issues, regarding daily coexistence between us and the Palestinians and there are many such issues. Something like this will certainly occur,” Weisglass said.
“Peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority or any of its authorized organs … can only occur when the Palestinian Authority is no longer a Hamas authority,” Weisglass added.