The Hamas-Fatah war in the West Bank and Gaza Strip may extend to Palestinian refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries, Palestinian Authority officials warned Sunday.
The warning came as the showdown between the two sides degenerated into mutual assassination attempts, kidnappings and the seizure of two PA ministries in Gaza City by forces loyal to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. At least three Palestinians were killed and dozens injured in Sunday's clashes.
Meanwhile, Abbas phoned US Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice and briefed her on the latest developments surrounding the Hamas-Fatah war. A source close to Abbas said he told Rice that he is determined to pursue his plan to get rid of the Hamas-led government as soon as possible.
"The governments of Jordan and Lebanon have sent us message in the past 24 hours saying they are very worried that the fighting could sill over into their countries," a top PA official told The Jerusalem Post.
"They urged us to work toward calming the situation because they don't want trouble at home. In Syria there is no problem with the Palestinians because most of them are anyway opposed to President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah."
While official figures put the number of Palestinian refugees in Jordan at 1.5 million, unofficial estimates put the number at closer to 3.5 million. In Lebanon, there are nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees.
Another official told the Post that the Jordanian authorities have beefed up their presence around the kingdom's refugee camps for fear of violent clashes between Hamas and Fatah supporters.
"Tensions inside the camps are running very high," the official added. "The Jordanians fear that any outburst of violence will destabilize the regime."
According to the official, Fatah activists in a number of refugee camps in Lebanon contacted Abbas's office over the past few days to report that the situation there was "on the verge of explosion."
At least three mortars were fired at Abbas's headquarters in Gaza City. One of them fell on a nearby house, wounding two civilians. PA security officials accused members of Hamas's "Executive Force" of launching a massive attack on the compound with the aim of occupying it.
Before the mortar attacks, fierce fighting erupted in the vicinity of Abbas's headquarters between his Force 17 "presidential guard" and Hamas militiamen. A 19-year-old woman, Hiba Musbah, was fatally shot in the chest and five Force 17 officers were injured.
At the time of the attack, the first of its kind against the headquarters of the PA chairman, Abbas was holding a meeting with members of the PA Central Election Commission to discuss his controversial decision to hold early parliamentary and presidential elections. No date was set for the vote and election officials pointed out that they would need at least three months to prepare for new elections.
Earlier, Hamas militiamen fired several shots at Abbas's private residence in Gaza City. No one was hurt.
The attacks on Abbas's headquarters and home came shortly after Hamas accused Abbas's security forces of trying to assassinate PA Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, who is also one of the leaders of Hamas. Hamas spokesmen accused Abbas's security forces of being behind the attempt.
Taher Nunu, spokesman for the PA Foreign Ministry, said snipers fired several shots at Zahar's car as he was leaving his office in the Tal al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City. One of Zahar's bodyguards was lightly injured. "The minister has escaped an attempt on his life," Nunu said. "Snipers deployed on nearby rooftops opened fire from automatic weapons at the minister's car."
In a move that was condemned by Hamas as the beginning of a "military coup," hundreds of Fatah gunmen and Force 17 members occupied the Hamas -run ministries of Agriculture and Transportation in Gaza City. The attackers kicked out all employees and announced that the ministries would remain closed on instructions from Abbas.
In a statement, the ministries described the takeover as being tantamount to a military coup and accused Abbas loyalists of serving the interests of Israel and the US.
Another seven people were wounded when Hamas militiamen fired at a Fatah rally in the northern Gaza Strip.
Late Saturday night, some 300 Hamas militiamen raided a Force 17 base in Gaza City and beat the 20 security officers who were there. The attackers also destroyed a vehicle and set fire to tents. The attackers fled only when reinforcements from Force 17 approached the area. Fatah spokesman Jamal Nazzal said the attackers accused Force 17 of standing behind the assassination attempt on Haniyeh last Thursday.
Following an emergency meeting in Gaza City, the Hamas-led government reiterated its strong opposition to Abbas's decision to call early parliamentary and presidential elections and said it would boycott the vote.
Referring to Abbas's announcement over the weekend, the government said: "This was not a speech for unity; it was an inflammatory and sarcastic speech that underestimated the sacrifices of our people."