Dozens of Hamas gunmen today rushed to the aid of a Cabinet minister after he was confronted by angry gunmen, sparking a shoot-out that left three people wounded in the latest explosion of infighting in the Gaza Strip.
The incident showed how the new Hamas-led government is turning to its private army to impose order as it battles the rival Fatah movement for control of Palestinian security forces.
The power struggle has grown increasingly contentious in recent days since Hamas announced plans to form a new security agency headed by a militant wanted by Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah promptly vetoed the appointment, leading to clashes and protests.
Representatives of the two sides agreed early today to work to end the tensions, but the pledge quickly degenerated into new violence.
Thousands of Fatah activists joined anti-Hamas protests in the West Bank, hours before the shoot-out at the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza.
The violence came a day after Health Minister Bassem Naim, a top Hamas official, said he was cutting $2m from the monthly health budget to help alleviate a government financial crisis by halting payments for patients to get treatment abroad.
The state of Gaza’s health care system is poor, and Palestinians routinely travel to Israel and other countries for treatment.
Today, a group of men, some of them armed, burst into Naim’s office and demanded that he authorise a trip for a relative who needed treatment abroad, Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Radi said.
Naim’s bodyguards – Hamas militants – called for backup from their colleagues, and the two groups engaged in a brief shoot-out that wounded three people, witnesses and Palestinian security officials said.
After a 45-minute stand-off, masked Hamas militants, joined by Palestinian police, retook the building, arresting three of the gunmen. Naim left surrounded by 10 Hamas militants.
The minister’s reliance on Hamas gunmen – not the Fatah-dominated security services – illustrated the deep distrust between the sides.
Abbas, a political moderate who was elected in separate presidential elections last year, has been trying to use his already considerable powers to marginalise Hamas, which formed a Cabinet after winning January elections.
Abbas favours peace talks with Israel, while Hamas calls for the destruction of the Jewish state and is listed as a terror organisation by the US and the European Union.
After Abbas tried to take control of all Palestinian security forces, Hamas responded last week with a plan to form its own shadow army made up of militants and headed by a top militant Israel has been hunting for years.
Abbas promptly vetoed that plan, and Hamas’ exiled political chief, Khaled Mashaal, accused him of co-operating with Israel and the US and “plotting against us.”
Mashaal’s comments sparked angry demonstrations and exchanges of fire in the West Bank and Gaza on Saturday. Mashaal said his comments were misinterpreted.
In a meeting Sunday, Hamas and Fatah officials said they would take steps to end the fighting.
“They agreed to work together to strengthen national unity,” Fatah official Maher Mekdad said, reading a joint statement.
But no agreement was reached on the flashpoint issue of control of the security forces, participants said. Outside the meeting, mediated by Egyptian security officials, thousands of Fatah supporters shouted anti-Hamas slogans.
The protests continued. In the West Bank town of Jenin, more than 4,000 people marched and chanted anti-Mashaal slogans, and in Nablus, dozens of Fatah-affiliated gunmen briefly stormed the municipal building and tried to shut down the offices.
Interior Minister Said Siyam said that he would pursue his plans to create the force – despite Abbas’ veto – and would meet with its designated head, fugitive Jamal Abu Samhadana, to discuss when he would take over his new duties.
Samhadana is the head of the militant Popular Resistance Committees, suspected of carrying out a 2003 bombing that killed three Marine guards in a US Embassy convoy in Gaza.
The Hamas-led government was further isolated after Hamas defended an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in Tel Aviv last week that killed nine people.
Israeli interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet today that the attack completed “the transformation of the Palestinian Authority to a terrorist authority”.
Also, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak plans a meeting between Olmert and Abbas in a fresh bid to relaunch stalled Middle East peace talks, Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit said.
He said the meeting would take place in the coming days after formation of the new Israeli government.
Neither Israeli or Palestinian officials could confirm whether their leaders planned to attend such a summit.
In the West Bank, Israeli undercover soldiers killed a Palestinian militant in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said soldiers opened fire when the militant tried to escape arrest, and the man died in a car crash.