Gaza fighting between Hamas, Fatah kills seven

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Heavily armed Hamas militiamen's efforts to break up anti-government protests Sunday sparked gunbattles across the Gaza Strip that killed seven people in the worst internal Palestinian violence since Hamas took power.

Militants from the opposition Fatah group retaliated by torching the Palestinian Cabinet building in the West Bank. The violence comes amid growing frustration over forming a national unity government that could end crippling economic sanctions.

The fighting continued throughout the day and sent schoolchildren and other civilians in downtown Gaza City fleeing for cover.

"This is forbidden in Islam, we are in the holy month of Ramadan," said Majed Badawi, 33, who managed to escape after his car was caught in the crossfire. "It's a shame on Hamas, who call themselves real Muslims, and a shame of Fatah as well. Why are they fighting and over what? We are victims because of both of them."

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

Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said Sunday that the military was considering another ground offensive.

Hours later, Israeli tanks, bulldozers and troops moved into northern Gaza. The army said the operation was aimed at preventing rocket fire from militants.

Looking to a possible new Israeli offensive, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, urged Palestinians to end the internal violence "in the face of a serious escalation from the occupation forces."

Haniyeh spoke with President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, by telephone and called for joint action to end the fighting, Haniyeh's office said.

But in a televised speech, Haniyeh also defended the Hamas militiamen, saying they acted lawfully in trying to break up the protests.

Fatah officials blamed Hamas for the chaos.

"Nothing can justify this violence," Fatah spokesman Tawfik Abu Khoussa said.

Hamas has been under pressure since it took over the Palestinian Authority after its January election victory over the long-ruling Fatah.

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, making it nearly impossible for the new government to pay its 165,000 workers.

Abbas, who was in Jordan on Sunday, has tried to end the crisis by persuading Hamas to form a coalition government and to accept international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel. Hamas has resisted compromising its radical ideology.

In recent weeks, civil servants -- including members of the security forces, many of them Fatah loyalists -- held expanding protests against the Hamas-led government to demand back wages.

On Saturday, the Hamas government sent its 3,500-member militia into Gaza's streets to quash the protests.

Hamas set up its militia -- which answers to the interior minister -- after losing a power struggle with Abbas for control of Palestinian security forces. Since then, violence has sporadically broken out between Hamas' militia and the official police force, but it has never been as widespread as it was Sunday.

The fighting started in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, where dozens of police gathered to demand back wages, protesters said. The Hamas militiamen ordered them to disperse, then opened fire at the protesters, who responded by shooting in the air, protesters said.

Fighting then broke out between militia members and security officials in northern Gaza and violence spread to the parliament building in Gaza City, where security officers and civil servants were protesting. The protesters threw stones at nearby Hamas militiamen, who eventually responded by firing on the protesters, according to an Associated Press journalist at the scene.

Militiamen and security personnel -- including bodyguards for Abbas -- began trading fire nearby.

People scattered, and children covered their heads with their schoolbags for protection.

The clashes later spilled over to an area near the president's residence.

"We are going to beat with iron fists all those elements who are trying to sabotage the election process of our people, those who are trying to destroy our public properties and close the streets," said Islam Shahwan, a militia spokesman.

The street battles killed four people, including a presidential bodyguard and a 15-year-old boy, said Dr. Baker Abu Safia, director of Gaza's Shifa Hospital. Two others were killed in related violence, and at least 75 were injured, hospital officials said.

A seventh person, a member of the Preventive Security force, was killed Saturday night when the car he was in was shot by unknown gunmen, security officials said.

In response to the violence, Fatah protesters in the West Bank city of Ramallah broke into the Cabinet building and lit the second floor on fire. A second building in the compound also was set ablaze.

Forced out by the fire, the militants moved to the Education Ministry and torched a car on the way. They then trashed the offices of a Hamas newspaper.

In the West Bank city of Hebron, Fatah-allied militants ransacked the offices of local Hamas lawmakers and set the furniture on fire.