KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Palestinian gunmen fatally ambushed a Hamas-linked Islamic judge and militant commander outside of a courthouse early Wednesday, escalating factional tensions in the Gaza Strip.
The drive-by shooting came two days after the killing of the three young children of a Fatah-allied Palestinian intelligence officer, which sparked fresh conflict between the rival Hamas and Fatah factions. The violence has reduced chances for a unity government and pushed the two sides closer to civil war.
Palestinian security officials said the slain man was Bassam al-Fara, 30, a jurist at the Islamic court and a Hamas commander who belongs to the largest clan in the southern town of Khan Younis.
In a statement faxed to reporters, Hamas openly accused what it called a Fatah ``death squad'' in al-Fara's killing.
Fauzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, gave no further details about al-Fara's militant activities but pledged to hunt down the killers.
``This is an ugly crime committed against one of the field commanders of Hamas' military wing and one of the prominent figures in Hamas,'' Barhoum said. ``The fingers that shot him are the same fingers that were involved in the killing of previous Hamas leaders. ``Hamas is not going to forget the blood of its members. It is going to pursue and bring those who were involved in today's crime to justice.''
Fatah spokesman Tawfik Abu Khoussa rejected the accusations.
``We condemn all acts of anarchy, whatever may be behind them. We call on the brothers in Hamas to stop firing accusations before the investigation,'' he said.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said from Sudan that he would cut short a foreign trip and return to Gaza.
When Haniyeh left on Nov. 28, he planned to travel for a month. That drew criticism because of the need to conclude negotiations with Fatah on a new government and the political violence raging in the Palestinian territories.
In Gaza on Wednesday, Haniyeh's political adviser, Ahmed Youssef, said that ``we need the prime minister to be here now to resolve the internal problems.''
But Haniyeh dismissed fears of the violence in Gaza escalating to a civil war.
``We want to assure you that words such as 'civil war' don't exist in our dictionary. They don't exist in our makeup, in our culture,'' Haniyeh told reporters in Khartoum.
Fatah officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the press, alleged that al-Fara had been involved in previous attacks against Fatah members.
Witnesses to Wednesday's shooting said the four gunmen calmly ate breakfast at a food stand as they waited for al-Fara outside the courthouse,.
When al-Fara emerged from a taxi, three of the men grabbed him and forced him onto his knees, while the fourth pulled out a weapon and shot him. The attack left the sidewalk riddled with bullet holes. The witnesses declined to be identified, fearing for their safety.
Dozens gathered at the scene and Palestinian security officers set up roadblocks. Hamas militants set up their own roadblocks throughout town, searching for the shooters.
Moderate President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah and Hamas have been locked in a power struggle since Hamas ousted Fatah in parliamentary elections. More than 40 Gazans have died in battles between the two groups since Hamas took power in March.
Seeking to end the standoff, Abbas has been trying to persuade Hamas to join Fatah in a national unity government. But the talks broke down late last month. Tensions heightened after Abbas announced plans over the weekend to call early elections, drawing Hamas accusations that he is plotting a coup.
The latest round of violence was sparked by Monday's killing of the three children of Baha Balousheh, an intelligence officer and Fatah loyalist who helped lead a crackdown on Hamas a decade ago. Balousheh, who was not in the car, escaped two previous Hamas assassination attempts.
Hamas denied involvement in Monday's killing.
Large protests broke out in several Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza on Tuesday. Six people were wounded by gunfire, according to hospital officials.