(photo credit: )
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and exiled Hamas supreme leader Khaled Mashal agreed to an immediate cease-fire late Friday evening following the deadliest single day of clashes between the rivals faction in an increasingly violent power struggle.
With the day's death toll climbing to 17 - including four children - the two sides announced that they had agreed, in principle, to the latest in a string of truces. But they said they still needed time to pull their volatile forces off the streets, and fierce gunbattles raged across Gaza in the hours after the announcement.
A cease-fire declared earlier in the week collapsed on Thursday afternoon, and gunmen armed with mortar shells, rockets and heavy guns proceeded to trade fire across the Gaza Strip. In all, two dozen Palestinians were killled and some 250 were wounded in the two days of fighting that followed.
After a day of bloody street battles, a Hamas spokesman announced late Friday afternoon that an agreement has been reached after a meeting at the Egyptian embassy in Gaza City.
"We, the leaders of the two groups, agreed with God's help on a cease-fire," said Nizar Rayan, a regional Hamas leader, after the meeting. "The measures that will be taken on the ground will be discussed in the next few hours."
A Fatah spokesman, Abdel Hakim Awad, confirmed agreement has been reached in principle.
Among those killed were a Palestinian Authority intelligence commander, his bodyguard, three Fatah-affiliated security officers, three Hamas gunmen and a 38-year-old woman, who was killed by a stray bullet in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.
Our World: Welcome to Palestine
Six killed in Fatah-Hamas street battles in Gaza
At least 185 people have been wounded - 19 of them critically - in the fighting since Thursday afternoon, the PA Health Ministry reported.
Health officials said Gaza was running out of blood and appealed for blood donors. Ambulances had come under fire and a ricocheting bullet lightly wounded one rescue worker, they said. A Red Crescent hospital near a security base in Gaza City was hit in cross fire and its windows and gates were pocked by bullet holes.
On Friday morning, 50 officers from Abbas' presidential guard surrounded the Hamas-led Interior Ministry and exchanged fire with Hamas gunmen guarding the building. Outside of Gaza City, Hamas militants launched mortar shells at a Fatah training base in an attack that wounded 30 recruits, security officials said. One shell missed the base, hitting a nearby house and wounding two children inside.
Later, Fatah forces stormed a Hamas-affiliated university, setting two buildings on fire and waging a shootout with Hamas forces inside the campus. Black smoke rose over the city.
During a raid Thursday night, Fatah gunmen grabbed seven people from the university campus, saying they were Iranians helping Hamas. Fatah claimed that the seven were Iranian weapons experts, including an Iranian Army general.
According to Palestinian reports, another Iranian committed suicide during the raid.
Hamas official Islam Shahwan denied the claim and said there were no Iranian citizens at the university.
After Shahwan warned Fatah to end its assault or face "very serious consequences," the Fatah gunmen left the compound but not before finding 1,400 Kalachnikov rifles, rockets, and several RPG and LAU missiles.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a Fatah-affiliated armed group, said it had carried out the raid of the university with the security forces and accused Hamas of using the campus to manufacture and distribute weapons.
Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan denied the presence of Iranians at the university and called charges that it was used for military purposes "ridiculous."
"The university has absolutely no business in politics, or military work," he said.
Iran has supplied Hamas with funds, but there have been no previous claims of Iranians working with Hamas in Gaza.
However, Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh told Army Radio that Israel was fully aware of the presence of Iranian officials in the West Bank and Gaza, who were assisting Hamas and Islamic Jihad with money, weapons enhancement and training."
"Iran is fighting Israel all the time, on every front," said Sneh. "But Israel is prevented from fighting it directly and only hits its agents," he added.
Also Friday morning, Hamas fighters blew up a pro-Fatah radio station in Gaza town of Jebaliya after a five-hour siege and dozens of Fatah members were wounded when Hamas operatives fired mortars at PA security posts in northern Gaza.
The fierce fighting has claimed nearly 70 lives since erupting in early December.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>