KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) – Members of two rival clans and Palestinian police exchanged fire in a dispute over land in the area of a former Israeli settlement, killing a 17-year-old civilian and wounding five people, including two policemen, Palestinian officials said Saturday.
The firefight Friday evening marked the first violent clash over former settlement-area land since Israel left the Gaza Strip in September. After the fatal shooting, dozens of people, including gunmen, vandalized a police station in the nearby town of Khan Younis and set two police cruisers on fire, said the governor of the area, Hosni Zourab.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said the former settlement land would be used for the public good, including housing projects, universities and nature reserves. Private land claims will be examined, but plots expropriated by Israel for the settlements will not automatically be returned to their owners, officials have said.
Palestinian security sources said Saturday that the half-acre plot of land was in the public domain and located in the area of the dismantled settlement of Neve Dekalim. But without clearcut maps of the area, it was not immediately clear whether the land formerly was part of Neve Dekalim, or nearby, they said.
Before Israel”s pullout from Gaza in September, settlers and the Israeli military controlled about one-fifth of the crowded coastal strip. The clash over land underscored Abbas” difficulties in imposing order in chaotic Gaza.
Two clans staked competing claims to the land at issue in Friday”s dispute, Palestinian officials said. One of the clans, the Astals, had fenced off the area.
When police came to tear down the fence, gunmen fired at them, and a firefight erupted. Seventeen-year-old Naef Astal was killed and five people were wounded, including two policemen.
Police arrested three people and took them to a lockup in Khan Younis. Later Friday, dozens of people broke into the police station, demanding the release of the detainees, then vandalized the building, police said.
Hamas, meanwhile, said Saturday it has asked Egypt to delay talks on renewing a truce with Israel until after the Palestinian parliament election Jan. 25. The Egyptian government had brokered an informal truce that expires at the end of the year, and has invited Palestinian factions to Cairo to talk about extending the cease-fire for another year. Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri said the group has accepted the invitation, but that a date has not been set.
Earlier this week, the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said his group is not inclined to renew the truce, citing what he alleged were repeated violations by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
"The prevailing political atmosphere doesn”t encourage such a dialogue (with Egypt) to take place soon," Hamas quoted Mashaal as telling Palestinian prisoners in Israel”s Ketziot tent camp in a telephone address. Mashaal”s comments were released in a Hamas statement Saturday. In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was mulling whether to leave his Likud Party before spring elections and form a new party. Israel Radio said Sharon”s aides have completed the technical preparations for the possible registration of a new party, but that he has not yet decided. Political commentators say a key motive for Sharon to quit Likud would be to throw off the restraints imposed by party hardliners. More than one-third of Likud”s 40 legislators are rebels who repeatedly tried to block the Gaza pullout.
Israel TV”s Channel Two said that if re-elected as prime minister, Sharon plans to withdraw troops from additional areas of the West Bank, and that a hardline Likud would restrict his maneuvering room.
Others noted that even popular leaders who split from their parties have traditionally not done well in Israeli elections. Likud commands a well-oiled machine of activists, and Sharon would be hard-pressed to put together a similar operation in a short period of time.