Hamas militia leaves Gaza's streets, sporadic violence still flares

Monday, October 2nd 2006, 6:48 am
By: News On 6

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Hamas militiamen pulled back from Gaza's streets Monday, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declared that calm was returning after a deadly explosion of violence between his Hamas group and its Fatah rivals.

Fatah militants enforced a general strike in many West Bank towns as a show of their strength against Hamas, while the Hamas-led government ordered all ministries closed to protest Fatah attacks on government buildings.

Sporadic gunfights also broke out as tensions remained high between the two groups, but the violence was far less than the chaos and running street battles that killed eight people across the Gaza Strip on Sunday.

``Gaza today is better, and moving toward calm,'' Haniyeh told his Cabinet, but said he feared violence in the West Bank. Fatah militants threatened to retaliate for the Gaza violence with attacks in the West Bank, where they are stronger.

``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,'' Haniyeh said.

The fighting in Gaza erupted Sunday when the Hamas-led government's 3,500-man militia confronted members of the Fatah-dominated security forces who were protesting the 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.

Interior Minister Said Siyam, who is in charge of the militia, ordered it to withdraw late Sunday. By Monday morning, militiamen had stopped patrolling Gaza's streets and pulled back to their bases near government ministries and on street corners, greatly reducing friction.

Abbas ordered the striking security officers to return to work, and 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.

A gunbattle broke out at Gaza City's main hospital when relatives of one of Sunday's victims arrived to retrieve his body, and Fatah gunmen with 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, Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer said Fatah militants shot at his bodyguards as they rode in a government car, injuring two of them. Shaer was not present during the attack. Hospital officials said a Fatah militant was also injured.

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 violence further dampened hopes for a coalition government between Fatah and Hamas, which was aimed at ending economic sanctions imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas' election victory. Those sanctions left the government unable to pay its 165,000 workers.

Coalition talks stalled as Abbas unsuccessfully pushed for Hamas to accept Western demands to moderate its violent ideology.

Fatah lawmaker Saeb Erekat, an Abbas confidant, dismissed the possibility of a quick return to talks.

``Coalition talks suffered before this (violence),'' he said. ``At the moment, we are focusing on ensuring these things will not recur.''

Abbas was abroad Monday and scheduled to return Tuesday.

Violence between Fatah and Hamas loyalists plagued Gaza in the spring, but largely ended when Israel launched an offensive June 28 after Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier.

Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, one of the groups responsible for Cpl. Gilad Shalit's capture, said contacts with Egyptian mediators trying to broker his release had resumed, but there was no progress.

The militants are demanding Israel release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in return for Shalit.

Also Monday, a Palestinian fisherman was shot to death by an Israeli gunboat off the coast of Khan Younis, Palestinian officials said. The army said it was unaware of the incident. Israel has forced fishermen to stay close to shore since the offensive began.