(photo credit: )
The number of Palestinians killed in fierce fighting between Fatah and Hamas gunmen in the Gaza Strip over the weekend rose to 25 on Saturday night, with dozens more wounded in the clashes. At least six of the victims died on Saturday.
Among the casualties was two-year-old Yehya Abu Bakreh, who was killed when Fatah gunmen fired at his father's car. Fatah gunmen and Palestinian Authority policemen also attacked a mosque in Gaza City, killing a number of worshipers.
The fighting, the heaviest between the two parties since Hamas came to power a year ago, left the streets of Gaza City completely deserted except for hundreds of militiamen and police officers. The PA Ministry of Education announced that studies in universities and schools would be suspended until further notice due to the growing violence.
A public opinion poll published Saturday showed that more than half of Palestinians believe that a civil war has begun. Sixty-six percent expressed pessimism regarding the general situation in the PA-controlled territories, while more than 88% said they no longer felt secure.
The poll, conducted by An-Najah University in Nablus, surveyed 1,360 people from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem and has a 3% margin of error.
Fatah officials accused Hamas of declaring a "public war" on the party and vowed to avenge the deaths of their colleagues. They said Hamas snipers were using mosque rooftops to fire at Fatah members.
Hamas said the fighting was triggered by Fatah leaders with the aim of toppling the Hamas-led government.
Two Fatah-run radio stations in Gaza City went off the air after their workers received death threats from Hamas. Yehyah Mussa, a Hamas legislator in Gaza City, had earlier called on Hamas supporters to attack the two stations, saying they were inciting against Hamas.
The latest clashes prompted Hamas to suspend talks with Fatah over the formation of a PA unity government. Hamas said a decision had been taken to protest against "crimes committed by Fatah gangs."
Ayman Taha, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza City, said the latest violence was part of a scheme designed to bring down the Hamas-led government and ignite civil war. "Hamas will not allow Fatah conspirators to drag the Palestinians toward civil war," he said. "They are trying to serve the interests of the Americans and Zionists."
Taha and other Hamas representatives called on PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to cut short his current European tour and return immediately to the Gaza Strip to try and calm the situation.
Tawfik Abu Khoussa, a senior Fatah official in the Gaza Strip, came out with a scathing attack on Hamas, accusing its members of "practicing all forms of sadistic crimes and thuggery."
Abu Khoussa said a "bloody gang" within Hamas was responsible for driving the Palestinians toward civil war.
"They are perpetrating daily massacres against our people," he added. "They blew up the offices of a TV station and killed dozens of security officers and civilians."
PA Attorney-General Ahmed al-Mughni held PA Interior Minister Said Siam of Hamas responsible for the latest killings, kidnappings and anarchy in the Gaza Strip. He announced the formation of a commission of inquiry to investigate the "crimes" perpetrated in there over the weekend.
As interior minister, Siam is formally in charge of the PA security forces. But since most of his powers have been taken by Abbas, Siam is responsible only for the paramilitary "Executive Force" that he established last year.
Mughni condemned the Executive Force as illegal and accused it of targeting commanders and members of the PA security forces. "Siam is providing cover for murderers who are responsible for the anarchy," Mughni charged. "He has even given some of the murderers the opportunity to go on vacation abroad."
Mughni also said the PA security forces had failed to execute thousands of arrest warrants issued against suspected murderers and other criminals.
The clashes began late Thursday night when one member of the Executive Force was killed and seven were wounded by a roadside bomb near the Jabalya refugee camp.
In response, Hamas gunmen killed Nabil Jarjir, a senior member of Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades. Jarjir was wounded when his home came under fire. Hamas gunmen subsequently stopped the ambulance that was carrying him to a hospital and shot him in the head, killing him instantly.
On Friday, dozens of Hamas gunmen attacked the home of Mansour Shalayel, a top Fatah operative in the northern Strip. The attack lasted for several hours, only ending when hundreds of Fatah gunmen and PA policemen repelled the assailants.
Although the house was completely destroyed by missiles and explosive devices, Shalayel was only lightly wounded. Eight Hamas members and two Fatah men were killed in the confrontation outside the house.
Also Friday, hand grenades were thrown at the homes of PA Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar of Hamas and Gen. Rashid Abu Shabak, a Fatah leader and top PA security commander in the Gaza Strip. Neither was hurt in the separate attacks.
"The renewed fighting between Fatah and Hamas is a real national tragedy for the Palestinians," said independent legislator Rawya Shawwa. "They have crossed all red lines by storming homes and killing and terrorizing women and children. Palestinians here are living in a state of panic and despair."