GAZA Gun battles erupted Monday night between Fatah gunmen and Hamas militiamen in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, killing one person and wounding 15, a day after a deadly explosion of internal violence paralyzed the Gaza Strip.
The fighting was the latest in a series of sporadic battles throughout the day as tensions remained high between the two groups. Fatah militants enforced a general strike in many West Bank towns in a show of strength against Hamas, while the Hamas-led government ordered all ministries closed to protest Fatah attacks on government buildings.
But the level of violence was far below the chaos and running street battles that had killed 8 people and wounded 100 across Gaza on Sunday.
In an effort to reduce friction, Hamas pulled its militiamen out of Gaza’s major streets Monday and sent them back to their normal posts.
“Gaza today is better, and moving toward calm,” Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas told his cabinet on Monday afternoon. But he said he feared violence in the West Bank, where Fatah militants threatened to retaliate for the Gaza fighting.
“We reiterate to our people to be responsible, not to spread the circle of disagreements and conflict, and not to transfer events to other parts of the nation,” Haniya said.
Hours after he spoke, Fatah gunmen marched through Rafah after evening prayers to protest the Hamas-led government and its militia, witnesses said. When they approached a militia post, a gun battle broke out, and five people were wounded, one seriously, they said.
The fighting ended after local Hamas and Fatah officials called on their supporters to back down.
But minutes later, a new battle erupted in a Fatah stronghold across town that killed 1 bystander and left 10 other people with bullet and shrapnel wounds. Fatah officials said Hamas militiamen opened fire on Fatah supporters as they drove near a roadblock. Hamas said its militia came under fire from the car and fought back.
An earlier gun battle erupted at Gaza City’s main hospital Monday morning when relatives of one of Sunday’s victims arrived to retrieve his body. Fatah gunmen accompanying them opened fire on Hamas militiamen patrolling the hospital. Patients and doctors ran for cover, but no one was hurt, hospital officials said.
In the northern West Bank city of Nablus, Fatah militants shot at Deputy Prime Minister Nasser al-Shaer’s bodyguards as they rode in a government car, wounding two of them, said Shaer, who was not present during the attack. Hospital officials said a Fatah militant was also wounded.
In Jericho, a Fatah gunman trying to enforce the general strike shot a shopowner in the head, seriously wounding him, Fatah officials said. The wounded man was also a Fatah member, the officials said.
The latest round of violence began in Gaza on Sunday when the 3,500-man Hamas militia confronted members of the Fatah-dominated security forces who were protesting the Hamas-led government’s inability to pay their wages. Fatah militants responded by torching the cabinet building in Ramallah and trashing Hamas offices in the West Bank.
Hamas, which ousted Fatah in January parliamentary elections, formed the militia in April after losing a power struggle for control of the security forces with President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader elected separately last year.
While Hamas pulled its militia from the main streets, Abbas ordered the striking security officers to return to work. Their protest tent – a tangible source of tension with the Hamas government – lay empty outside the Parliament building in Gaza on Monday. However, a similar tent outside the West Bank Parliament building in Ramallah was filled with protesters.
“The strike is still ongoing, and it seems that there is no end in sight,” said Bassem Hadaidah, a spokesman for the strikers.
The violence further dampened hopes for a coalition government between Fatah and Hamas, a compromise aimed at ending international economic sanctions imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas’s election victory. Those sanctions left the government unable to pay its 165,000 workers.
The coalition talks stalled as Abbas unsuccessfully pushed for Hamas to accept Western demands to moderate its violent ideology.