GAZA CITY (AFP) -Sporadic gunbattles between rival Palestinian factions have rattled the streets of Gaza City for a third straight morning, despite a ceasefire declared by the factions’ leaders.
Bursts of gunfire echoed out from the city centre, where streets were again deserted and shops shuttered as inhabitants hunkered down in their homes.
Before dawn, two mortar rounds slammed into the headquarters of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s elite presidential guard, just 100 metres (yards) away from his seafront offices, a security source said.
Still, there were signs that the violence was calming as the rival factions began withdrawing their militants from the streets overnight as stipulated by the ceasefire agreed Friday by Abbas and Hamas’s exiled leader Khaled Meshaal.
The fighting was more subdued than in previous days, when 28 Palestinians were killed and around 260 wounded in the some of the fiercest clashes since the Islamist Hamas routed Fatah in parliamentary elections early last year.
As Abbas and Meshaal prepared for crisis talks in the Muslim holy city of Mecca Tuesday to be hosted by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said that, despite the fighting, he remained confident the two men could still strike a national unity deal.
“We are working towards a national unity government. It is about to be finished, unless there are any surprises,” Mubarak said after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Cairo Saturday.
Fatah and Hamas have tried in vain for months to form a broad coalition acceptable to Western donors, who imposed a crippling aid freeze on the Palestinian Authority when the Islamist-led government took power last March.
Representatives of the two sides met in Gaza Saturday to renew their commitment to the truce — the second attempt at a ceasefire in a week.
But as violence continued to puncture it, the rival factions traded blame.
Two members of Abbas’s elite presidential guard died Sunday morning from wounds suffered Friday during an attack on their training camp in south Gaza City.
Late Saturday, Hamas militants killed a Fatah security officer, a Palestinian security source said.
And in the West Bank, Fatah militants kidnapped a professor of Islamic law who teaches at Nablus’s An-Najah Islamic University.
Fatah accused Hamas of failing to rein in its gunmen. “The problem with Hamas is that the political leadership cannot control their militants on the ground,” spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khussa told AFP.
The United Nations warned Saturday that the upsurge in violence was making it “extremely difficult for us to fulfil our humanitarian mandates”.
“The implications of this for a population already facing extreme hardship are grave,” it said.
The Abbas-Meshaal summit will be a second rare meeting for the two leaders after talks in Damascus on January 21 ended without a breakthrough.
That failure helped spark off the latest round of clashes which have killed 63 people since January 25.
The German chancellor, who is the current holder of the European Union’s rotating presidency, reiterated in Cairo Saturday that the 27-member bloc would only resume aid to the Palestinian government if it renounced violence and recognized Israel and past peace deals, something Hamas has declined to do.
The European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States reaffirmed the three conditions at talks in Washington Friday although Russia again voiced criticism of the “counterproductive” policy.
“I don’t think that to resolve this problem… you could do it through boycott and isolation,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.