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(photo credit: AP)
Violent clashes between Hamas and Fatah continued Friday following claims that senior Palestinian official Mohammed Dahlan orchestrated Thursday night's assassination attempt on Prime Minister Ismail Hanieyeh that left a 24-year-old bodyguard dead and others wounded, including Haniyeh's own son, Abdel Salam, and his political adviser, Ahmed Yousef.
Hamas spokesman in Gaza Ismail Reduan said that Dahlan had planned the attempted hit as he led the group of Presidential Guard members who raked the convoy with gunfire.
During a press conference in Gaza, Reduan said that Dahlan was leading incitement against Hamas in order to enflame the Palestinian streets and cause a civil war.
He called on Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw his Presidential Guard and Fatah's Force 17 from the Rafah Crossing and the streets of Gaza.
Dahlan denied the accusation and said that those to blame for the attack were the gunmen who stormed the Rafah Crossing. He claimed that Hamas was trying to cover up this week's killing of three children of Fatah members.
Earlier Friday morning, senior Hamas officials vowed that the Hamas-led PA government and the movement's armed faction would avenge the previous night's assassination attempt.
Hamas official Jamal Nasser said, "We know who shot at the prime minister's convoy and killed his bodyguard. Sooner or later we will settle our scores with them." Nasser said that Dahlan and other Fatah officials were responsible for incitement and for the murder that capped a turbulent day of intense factional fighting between the Hamas and Fatah.
Haniyeh crossed into the Gaza Strip late Thursday night after being barred entry for hours by Israel because he was apparently carrying some $35 million in cash in his luggage.
His delayed entry sparked a series of clashes on the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing from Egypt, including the assassination attempt.
20 people were wounded in the unrest, Israel Radio reported.
Haniyeh later said to reporters at his home in the Gaza Strip that Hamas officials knew who was responsible for firing on his convoy and "how to deal" with the attackers.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the shooting was an attempt to assassinate Haniyeh, and held the Fatah-allied Presidential Guard responsible.
"The Presidential Guard controls the Palestinian side (of the border terminal). There are no other gunmen there. They are responsible for security of the border," Barhoum said. "We say there was a clear assassination attempt."
Wael Dahab, a spokesman for the Presidential Guard, said many gunmen were in the area and that it was difficult to control the situation. "Our men did not start the shooting, they did not shoot, and there were many people carrying guns," he said.
Abbas expressed deep regret for the incident and said that he was "closely following developments."
The intense fighting began when Hamas gunmen, angry that Haniyeh had been prevented from returning to Gaza, burst into the Rafah terminal, sparking a gun battle with guards. The Hamas members waiting outside the terminal grew impatient for Haniyeh's return and broke into the compound, shooting in the air. The PA's Force 17, the presidential guard which is responsible for security at the terminal and loyal to Abbas, returned fire.
Clashes also erupted between Hamas gunmen and Egyptian security personnel.
The Hamas gunmen used explosive charges to blow a hole through the concrete barrier separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt.
Travelers in the terminal lobby ran for cover, some carrying their luggage. Women and children hid behind walls and nearby taxis outside. The attackers also destroyed surveillance cameras and computers, eyewitnesses said.
Egyptian Intelligence chief Gen. Omar Suleiman ultimately brokered an agreement with Israel to allow the Hamas prime minister to return, but without the millions of dollars he and his aides reportedly had in their suitcases.
The clashes marked another escalation of tensions between Hamas and Fatah, whose representatives stepped up their war of words and warned of an imminent civil war.
With the approval of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz issued the order to the IDF to close off the Rafah crossing to prevent Haniyeh from entering the Gaza Strip.
Israel had received information that Haniyeh, returning from his first trip abroad as PA prime minister, had with him between $30 million to $40m. in donations obtained from countries he visited, including Iran. Security officials said Israel was not prepared to let Haniyeh bypass the official PA Treasury and use the money to finance Hamas institutions and terrorist activities.
The officials said from now on Israel would not allow Hamas ministers carrying money to enter Gaza either. They also expressed concern that members of Haniyeh's entourage were returning to Gaza with new instructions from Iran for terrorist attacks against Israel.
While Israeli security personnel are not present at the crossing, they can shut it down by closing the Kerem Shalom supervision station inside Israel, which prevents the European monitors from overseeing the pedestrian traffic at the crossing between Egypt and Gaza.
Haniyeh arrived in Egypt on Thursday on his way back to Gaza after he cut short his trip, which also included visits to Sudan, Qatar, Egypt and Syria. Earlier this week he said Iran had promised to give him $250m. to assist in stabilizing the Palestinian situation in the Gaza Strip.
Defense officials said Peretz coordinated the decision to close the Rafah crossing with all the relevant authorities.
Government sources said Olmert made the decision after consulting with security officials.
Asked Monday en route to Berlin whether Israel would bar Haniyeh's reentry into Israel after Haniyeh said in Teheran that Iran gave Hamas "strategic depth," Olmert replied that not every comment necessitated an Israeli reaction, but that Haniyeh's words were noted.
It has been an open secret for months that Hamas operatives were smuggling money through the Rafah crossing, but government sources said this was the largest single amount anyone had tried to bring in.
The cabinet was told at its weekly meeting Sunday that despite the cutoff of international funds to the PA when Hamas came to power earlier in the year, the PA government has still been able to pay between 40 to 50% of the salaries.
Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas-led government and who accompanied Haniyeh on his tour of Arab and Islamic countries, said in a phone interview from El-Arish in Egypt that the money would be transferred to the PA Finance Ministry through the Arab League. He said the money would go to paying salaries to civil servants, unemployed workers, fishermen in the Gaza Strip and owners of houses demolished by Israel.
"We have every right to bring money through the Rafah border crossing," Hamad said. "The Rafah terminal belongs to the Palestinians, not the Europeans and Israelis. There is no law that prevents the prime minister from passing through the terminal or carrying money."
He said Israel's attempt to prevent Haniyeh from bringing cash into the Gaza Strip was part of an "international conspiracy to starve the Palestinian people."
Ismail Radwan, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, confirmed that Haniyeh was carrying more than $30m. in cash. He said the money was donated by different Arab and Islamic countries and organizations and was intended to help the Palestinian economy.
Hamas officials revealed last week that the movement has succeeded in smuggling more than $66m. in cash through the Rafah terminal in the past eight months. Zahar returned two weeks ago to Gaza carrying more than $25m. in cash.
The incident at Rafah comes amid an upsurge in violence between Hamas and Fatah supporters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip following the breakdown of talks over the formation of a unity government.
Three Hamas activists were shot and seriously wounded Thursday when Fatah gunmen opened fire at a Hamas rally in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. In the evening, a fierce gun battle erupted in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip between members of the Fatah-controlled General Intelligence Force and scores of Hamas militiamen.
In more scenes of anarchy in the Gaza Strip, gunmen belonging to the Popular Resistance Committees, an alliance of several Palestinian armed groups, kidnapped Muhammad Abu Siam, a senior officer with the General Intelligence Force.
The abduction came in response to the detention earlier in the day of Hisham Mukhaimar, a member of the Popular Resistance Committees, on suspicion of involvement in the murder of the three children of a top PA officer earlier this week. Four people were wounded by gunfire during the detention of Mukhaimar, one of them a General Intelligence officer.
In Ramallah, unidentified gunmen fired at the car of Prisoners Affairs Minister Wasfi Kabaha. There were no casualties.
The growing tensions between Hamas and Fatah come as Abbas prepares to deliver a speech to the Palestinian public on Saturday about the failure of the unity government talks.
Although PA officials said they expected Abbas to dissolve the Hamas-led government and call early elections, sources close to the PA chairman noted that he still believed a deal could be reached with Hamas.
A senior PA official in Ramallah criticized the timing of Israel's decision on Haniyeh, saying it was likely to spoil Abbas's efforts to get rid of the Hamas-led government.
"This is a very bad decision because it comes as the president prepares to announce a series of dramatic measures to resolve the crisis in the Palestinian territories," the official said. "This decision has played into the hands of Hamas, whose leaders will now win the sympathy of most Palestinians."