Hamas militiamen withdrew from the streets of the Gaza Strip today and returned to their normal posts after the worst day of internal violence since Hamas took control of the Palestinian government in March.
Despite the move to reduce tensions, a 20-minute gun battle erupted at the main hospital in Gaza City when the family of one of those killed arrived to retrieve his body.
The Fatah gunmen accompanying the family opened fire on the Hamas militiamen patrolling the hospital, sending patients and doctors running for cover. No one was injured in the violence, hospital officials said.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party enforced a general strike, closing shops and private schools in a show of force against Hamas. For its part, the Hamas-led government ordered all ministries closed to protest Fatah attacks on government buildings.
Fatah militants also released a Hamas official in the Finance Ministry they had briefly kidnapped, telling him his abduction was intended to send Hamas a message to end the Gaza violence, Hamas officials said. Hamas denied Fatah militants’ claim that they had kidnapped a Hamas minister.
Gaza, the centre of the violence that killed eight people yesterday, remained tense today, and many shops were closed out of fears of renewed attacks.
The violence began yesterday morning when members of the Hamas-led government’s 3,500-man militia confronted civil servants – including members of the Fatah-allied security forces – who were protesting against the government’s inability to pay their wages.
The tense confrontations quickly erupted in running gun battles that spread across the Gaza Strip, sending civilians fleeing for their lives and turning the centre of Gaza City into a battle zone.
Fatah militants quickly followed through on a promise to retaliate for the Gaza violence with attacks of their own in the West Bank, where Hamas is far weaker.
Hundreds of angry Fatah supporters torched the Cabinet building in Ramallah and trashed Hamas-linked offices in the cities of Hebron and Nablus.
Both Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and Abbas appealed for calm.
“These confrontations have crossed the red line, which we have avoided crossing for four decades,” Abbas said in a speech on Palestinian TV.
Abbas called for the security officers to end their protest and for the Hamas militia, which the government formed after Abbas took control of all the official security branches, to leave the streets.
Late yesterday, Interior Minister Said Siyam, who is in charge of the militia, ordered it to withdraw, and by this morning the militiamen had stopped patrolling the streets and pulled back to their bases near government ministries and on some street corners, reducing friction.
In the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, where the violence began, dozens of official security officers were patrolling the streets to maintain order.
Despite the appeals for calm, militants in Gaza torched the Agricultural Ministry early Monday, and a group of young students in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun stoned the house of Hamas minister until his bodyguards chased them away by firing in the air.
Amid the violence, Abbas called for the renewal of stalled negotiations for the formation of a national unity government, a move aimed at ending crippling sanctions on the Palestinian Authority. However, the violence dampened hopes for a Hamas-Fatah coalition.
Israel and the West, which view Hamas as a terror group, cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas took power, making it nearly impossible for the new government to pay its 165,000 workers.
Abbas has tried to end the crisis by pushing Hamas to accept international demands to renounce violence and recognise Israel’s right to exist, but the radical Islamic group has refused.
Violence between Fatah and Hamas loyalists plagued Gaza throughout the spring, but largely disappeared when Israel launched a Gaza offensive in late June 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 agreement.
“Until now there is nothing new. All the talks about achieving a deal are false,” he said.
The militants are demanding Israel release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in return for the soldier.
Also today, a Palestinian fisherman was shot and killed by an Israeli gunboat off the coast of Khan Younis, Palestinian officials said. The Israeli army had no immediate comment. Israel has forced fishermen to remain close to shore since the offensive began on June 28.
Israel’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said the military was considering another ground offensive into Gaza. Hours later, Israeli tanks, bulldozers and troops moved into northern Gaza. The army said the operation was aimed at preventing rocket fire from militants.