GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, AP -Palestinian security foiled the second attempt in two days to kill top commanders loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas in what officials in his Fatah party said Sunday was a “clear conspiracy” against their leaders.
Fatah officials stopped short of openly accusing the rival Hamas militant group, which controls the Palestinian government. But the latest bout of Palestinian infighting, mainly over control of the security forces, has raised fears of civil war.
Gaza security chief Rashid Abu Shbak, a central figure in the power struggle, was the target of an attempted bombing Sunday, security officials said.
Security forces found and destroyed a 154-pound roadside bomb along a route used by Shbak’s motorcade. The road is inspected each morning before Shbak heads to work.
The discovery came a day after Abbas’ intelligence chief, Tareq Abu Rajab, was seriously wounded and one of his bodyguards was killed when a bomb loaded with metal pellets ripped through an elevator shaft in his Gaza headquarters.
Since Hamas defeated the long-ruling Fatah in legislative elections early this year, the two sides have been locked in a power struggle.
Abbas, a political moderate, was elected in separate presidential elections last year and wields significant authority, including formal control over some security forces.
Abbas tried to calm the tensions, saying the sides could not allow the situation to deteriorate.
“Civil war is the red line that nobody dares cross, no matter which side they are on … Civil war is forbidden,” Abbas said on the sidelines of a World Economic Forum meeting in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
In April, Abbas angered Hamas by placing Abu Shbak in charge of three security agencies that report to the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry. The Islamic militant group responded by forming its own security force.
The 3,000-member Hamas militia was deployed for the first time last week, despite orders from Abbas not to form the unit. In response, forces loyal to Abbas came out in large numbers.
After the bomb was discovered Sunday, hundreds of Fatah activists took to the streets to support the movement’s security forces and volunteer their services. Later in the day, the Fatah-dominated Preventive Security agency stepped up patrols in the streets of Gaza and restricted access to their headquarters.
Fatah officials suspect Hamas was behind both incidents over the weekend but have stopped short of openly accusing the militant group of involvement.
“There is a clear conspiracy aimed to target Fatah leaders and the security chief in the Gaza Strip with suspicious objects,” Fatah spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said. “What happened today near Abu Shbak’s house and yesterday with the intelligence services is proof of this.”
Abbas met with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Sharm el-Sheik on Sunday — the highest-level contacts between the sides since Hamas’ election victory.
Israel has cut all ties with the Hamas-led government and has frozen monthly transfers of $55 million in taxes it collects for the Palestinians. Israel, the United States and Europe have all demanded that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel.
The sanctions, coupled with a halt in financial aid from the United States and Europe, have left the Hamas government broke and unable to pay the salaries of 165,000 employees for the past two months. The budget crisis has increased economic hardship for the poverty-stricken Palestinian population.
On Sunday, Israel’s Cabinet approved the release of $11 million in withheld Palestinian money to buy medical supplies for the Palestinians. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the aid would be given directly to Palestinian hospitals to ensure it does not reach the hands of militants.
Also Sunday, Israel’s Defense Ministry approved the expansion of the municipal boundaries of four Jewish settlements, a practice the United States has opposed in the past. The announcement came just as Olmert left for Washington for his first meeting as prime minister with President Bush.
Olmert has said he will draw Israel’s borders, unilaterally if necessary, by 2010, dismantling many West Bank settlements and incorporating the largest settlement blocs into Israel. Three of the settlements slated for expansion lie within areas Olmert hopes to annex.
The United States has not expressed support for Olmert’s broad plan, but it is expected to be discussed during his meetings in Washington.
According to the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, Israel had agreed not to expand existing settlements or build new ones.
Meanwhile, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired a homemade rocket early Sunday at the southern Israeli town of Sderot, hitting an empty classroom but causing no injuries, the army said. School had begun, but children were in a separate room for morning prayers when the rocket crashed through the roof, school officials said.
The army responded with artillery fire toward launching areas in northern Gaza, the army and witnesses said.