GAZA, (Reuters) – Rival Palestinian security forces traded gunfire in southern Gaza on Tuesday as tensions soared in the strip after the killing of three young sons of one of President Mahmoud Abbas’s top intelligence officials.
Hospital officials said two members of Abbas’s security forces had been wounded, one seriously. A spokesman for the governing Hamas Islamist movement’s police force said two of their men had been wounded. One was in critical condition.
Both sides accused the other of starting the gunfight in the town of Khan Younis. The Hamas spokesman said members of Abbas’s forces had been protesting and attacking public buildings.
Abbas earlier ordered his security forces to deploy across Gaza after the killing of the three boys.
Tension between the moderate Abbas and Hamas has mounted since unidentified gunmen shot dead the children of Colonel Baha Balousha as they arrived at school on Monday. It was the first time children have been targeted in such an attack.
A senior official from Abbas’s Fatah faction, Hussein al-Sheikh, said the Hamas government bore responsibility. “Of course people very close to Hamas to say the least are behind the killings. We hold the government and the interior minister directly responsible,” Sheikh said. “These are mafias, killer gangs,” he added, referring to the perpetrators of the drive-by shooting.
Senior Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri angrily denied the militant movement had anything to do with the attack. “It seems some Fatah leaders are exploiting the blood of innocent children to earn political gains. We hold those leaders fully responsible for the grave consequences that may result from the fabrication and lies they are making.”
Scores of children on their way to school paid their respects at a mourning tent erected in Gaza City for the dead boys. They then set fire to tyres in the streets to protest the killings, sending clouds of black smoke into the air.
Angry mourners firing guns stormed the parliament compound on Monday during the funeral for the boys, aged 6 to 9.
Both Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, said they had urged the authorities to find the killers.
Besides internal political unrest, Gaza is riven with clan fighting and a surge in crime following a Western aid embargo on the Hamas government that has deepened poverty.
Political tension has been rising over the failure of Hamas and the formerly dominant Fatah to form a unity government that Palestinians hope might end the Western boycott.
Abbas aides said the president planned to call early elections on Saturday after talks on a unity government foundered. But they said he would still leave the door open to dialogue with Hamas.
Hamas has accused Abbas of trying to topple the government, which came to power after beating Fatah in elections in January.
Unity talks broke down over Hamas’s rejection of Western demands that it recognise Israel, and its insistence on holding the interior and finance portfolios in any new government.
Abbas, a moderate who favours peace negotiations with Israel, was elected separately in early 2005.