Friday, December 15, 2006

Hamas says Usrael, er, Abbas seeks war

Hamas says Abbas seeks war

By Nidal al-Mughrabi 8 minutes ago

President Mahmoud Abbas's security forces fired on a Hamas rally in the West Bank and gun battles between the two Palestinian factions erupted in Gaza on Friday, prompting a Hamas leader to accuse Abbas of starting a war.

Tensions reached their highest in a decade, fuelling fears the Palestinians were on the verge of civil war after months of failed talks to form a unity government between the ruling Hamas Islamist faction and Abbas's once-dominant Fatah.

"What a war, Mahmoud Abbas, you are launching, first against God, and then against Hamas," Khalil al-Hayya, head of the Hamas faction in parliament, told 100,000 supporters at a rally in Gaza City.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas urged "national unity" in a speech to the crowd but did not explicitly call for calm as he has during previous surges in internal fighting.

At least 32 Hamas supporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah were wounded by gunfire from Abbas's forces, hospital officials said. Several were in critical condition after the fiercest fighting in the occupied West Bank since Hamas came to power in March after trouncing Fatah in elections.

The violence broke out after Hamas, which controls the Palestinian Authority, accused a Fatah strongman and Abbas's presidential guard of trying to kill Haniyeh outside the Rafah border crossing with Egypt late on Thursday.

Israel's decision, with U.S. backing, to prevent Haniyeh entering Gaza with $35 million in cash intensified the standoff during which Haniyeh's convoy came under fire.

Israel, the United States and the European Union regard Hamas as a terrorist organization and cut off direct aid to the Palestinian government after the group rejected demands to recognize the Jewish state and renounce violence.

"We know who opened fire (on Haniyeh's convoy) and they will be punished hard. From now on they will never relax and they will never sleep tight in their homes," said Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas.

Fatah accused Hamas of ramping up divisions with its comments. "It increases tensions in the Palestinian area and fuels fanaticism which could lead to a civil war," senior Fatah leader Abdallah Al-Ifranji said in Gaza.

One of Haniyeh's bodyguards was killed in the incident at Rafah. Another bodyguard, the prime minister's son and a political adviser were wounded.

Haniyeh has convened a ministerial meeting later on Friday to discuss the growing tensions.

"(We) will determine a position over how to deal with the existing chaos," he said. "And what happened yesterday at the crossing and the direct assassination attempt to people and to the prime minister."


Speaking at Gaza's packed sports stadium, Hayya said Hamas would not agree to holding an early election or a referendum, a move Abbas could announce in a speech planned for Saturday in an attempt to break the political deadlock.

To cheers from the crowd, which fired automatic weapons in the air, Hayya delivered Hamas's harshest personal attack yet on Abbas. He did not say what steps Hamas would take if Abbas sought to call new elections.

Outside Ramallah's main mosque, Hamas supporters taunted Abbas's security forces. "You look like Israeli soldiers. You are spies," they shouted.

Dressed in riot gear, the Fatah-dominated forces used clubs and rifle-butts to beat back the Hamas demonstrators before shooting broke out. The mosque was damaged.

As the fighting started in the West Bank, Hamas and Fatah forces in Gaza started exchanging fire on the streets.

Hamas spokesman Ismail Rudwan accused Fatah strongman and lawmaker Mohammed Dahlan of being behind the attack on Haniyeh's convoy.

Dahlan rejected the allegation. He told Reuters it was part of a Hamas "cover-up" after unidentified militants this week shot dead three young sons of an intelligence official loyal to Abbas outside their school. Haniyeh has condemned the killings.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi and Wafa Amr in Ramallah)

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