Gun battles erupt between Hamas, Fatah

Two dead, at least 30 wounded after protest over frozen salaries turns violent.

October 1, 2006 12:33
3 minute read.
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Two people were killed, including a 15-year-old boy, and at least 32 were wounded when militiamen from the ruling Hamas party used guns and clubs to break up protests over unpaid government salaries near the parliament building in Gaza City and elsewhere in the Gaza Strip. The wounded included three schoolchildren and a TV cameraman. Hamas Radio accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah Party of stoking the unrest and dividing the Palestinian people. It also attacked his efforts to pressure Hamas to recognize Israel, a move that could help to ease crushing international sanctions that have rendered the government unable to pay salaries. Abbas ordered police not to take part in demonstrations. On Saturday, the government deployed all 3,000 Hamas militiamen across Gaza to bar widening wage-related unrest. By Sunday, the militiamen held true to their vow to break up protests by force, if necessary, with the most serious of the clashes taking place near parliament, where both police and civilian protesters had gathered. Militiamen and police, including members of Abbas' elite bodyguard unit, exchanged fire on two of the main streets of Gaza City near the parliament building. Gunmen from both sides took positions on rooftops near the legislature as people ran to take cover. Schoolchildren, some of them screaming, sought protection by covering their heads with their schoolbags. Merchants closed shops, and downtown Gaza City was snarled in a traffic jam because of the gun battles. Plumes of acrid black smoke billowed up from cars that had been set on fire. Since Hamas ousted Abbas from power earlier this year, Israel and the West have withheld tax payments and foreign aid in an effort to force Hamas to recognize and stop attacking Israel. Protests against the government have multiplied as the poverty deepens. In an effort to end the economic embargo, Hamas officials have tried to form a coalition government with Fatah, but the efforts have foundered because of Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist. "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 Shawhan, a spokesman for the militia. "We are not going to hesitate to take action against any of them." Clashes between militiamen and police began on Sunday in the southern city of Khan Younis, where dozens of police had gathered peacefully outside the Bank of Palestine to demand back wages, one of the protesters said. Hamas militiamen ordered the crowd to disperse, then opened fire at the protesters, who responded by shooting in the air, he said. Two civilian passersby were moderately wounded. A gun battle later erupted in Gaza City after militiamen tried to prevent security personnel and civilian protesters from blocking a street where two bank branches are located. No one was wounded, but both sides remained in a tense faceoff on either side of the street. Elsewhere in the city, militiamen arrested five security personnel near the house of a senior security official, provoking a 15-minute gunfight with the official's bodyguards, Hamas officials said. Each side accused the other of starting the fray; no one was hurt. As the clashes mounted, dozens of police, waving their weapons in the air, streamed out of their station in Gaza City and marched over to the parliament building, which was cordoned off weeks ago after protests began heating up. After the crowd quickly swelled to include hundreds of police and civilians, Hamas militiamen rush in swinging clubs and firing in the air. People scattered in all directions, with both sides shooting in every direction. Two people were killed, and 32 were wounded, including three schoolchildren and a cameraman for the Arab satellite TV station Al-Arabiya. At least one additional person who was beaten was taken by ambulance to a hospital. ib/at

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