Eleven Palestinians were killed and more than 150 were wounded in fierce clashes between Hamas and Fatah supporters in the Gaza Strip and West Bank over the past two days.
The violence, the worst of its kind since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority more than a decade ago, followed allegations by Hamas leaders that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party were planning a coup against the Hamas-led government.
Most of the casualties were reported in the Gaza Strip. One person was killed and two were wounded in a battle between Fatah and Hamas gunmen Monday night in Rafah, a day after nine people were killed and dozens were wounded in heavy fighting throughout the Strip.
On Monday the violence spilled over to the West Bank, where a Palestinian was shot to death in Jericho and six others were wounded by gunfire in Nablus. In addition, several PA institutions and Hamas-run organizations were set on fire, including the offices of the PA prime minister in Ramallah.
Fatah officials strongly condemned the Hamas-led government, holding it responsible for the outbreak of the violence. The officials urged Abbas to fire the government and to declare a state of emergency to prevent an all-out confrontation.
The violence began on Sunday morning, when several hundred Fatah-affiliated policemen took to the streets in the Gaza Strip for the third consecutive day to protest unpaid salaries. The policemen stormed the Bank of Palestine branch in Gaza City and set it on fire.
Ignoring warnings by PA Interior Minister Said Siam of Hamas that he would use force to disperse the protesters, the policemen, backed by scores of Fatah gunmen, went on a shooting spree in the streets and blocked main highways.
As the protests intensified, Siam ordered his ministry's 3,000-strong "back-up" force to intervene, claiming that the demonstrations were politically-motivated with the aim of undermining the Hamas-led government.
In scenes reminiscent of the Lebanese civil war in the 70s and 80s, the confrontation quickly turned into street battles, with both sides using automatic rifles, pistols and hand-propelled grenades. At least three of the casualties were identified as innocent passersby, including 15-year-old Hassan Abu al-Hatel.
The clashes subsided by nightfall as the rival parties heeded calls by Egyptian security mediators to declare a cease-fire. Abbas and PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh also appealed for calm and promised to launch an investigation into the clashes.
At the request of Abbas and the Egyptians, Hamas agreed to withdraw its back-up force from the streets and public squares - a move that contributed to easing tensions. The situation in the Gaza Strip remained very tense Monday.
Khaled Abu Hilal, spokesman for the PA Interior Ministry, said his ministry was determined to crush "rebellious" elements in the PA security forces. "We will chase them wherever they are," he vowed, claiming that "outside forces" were responsible for the deterioration.
Hamas leaders repeated charges that the mutiny in the PA security forces was part of a plot designed to bring down the Hamas-led government. "We strongly condemn the acts of sabotage perpetrated by a tiny minority of Palestinian policemen," said a statement issued by the Hamas leadership in Gaza City. "These thugs are using the issue of unpaid salaries as a cover for staging a coup against the legitimate government. We will not remain idle in the face of these suspicious and well-planned attempts."
In the West Bank, where Hamas has a smaller presence, Fatah gunmen and PA policemen attacked several institutions and offices belonging to Hamas with firebombs. Leaflets distributed by Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, called on all their gunmen to attack Hamas institutions and figures.
Hamas's Minister for Prisoners Affairs, Wasfi Kabaha, was briefly detained by Fatah gunmen who stormed his home in Jenin. A Hamas deputy minister in the Finance Ministry was snatched by Fatah gunmen, who also fired several shots at the Nablus home of Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Eddin Shaer.
On Monday, there were more clashes in Nablus between Fatah and Hamas gunmen. Local sources said at least six people were wounded, including two of Shaer's bodyguards.
The internecine fighting was accompanied by an unprecedented war of words between Hamas and Fatah leaders. "This government poses a real threat to the safety of the Palestinians," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a top aide to Abbas. "The government is unable to carry out its responsibilities because it is leading us from one failure to another."
Ziad Abu Ain, a senior Fatah operative in Ramallah, threatened to "pursue" all Hamas leaders and representatives who supported their government's decision to suppress the protests by force. "They are all responsible for the crime that occurred on black Sunday," he said. "We will chase them wherever they are unless they openly condemn what their government did."
PA officials said Abbas, who spent the past two days in Jordan, is expected to return to Ramallah on Tuesday for urgent consultations with his advisers on the latest crisis.
Abbas's media adviser, Nabil Amr, said he did not rule out the possibility that Abbas would declare a state of emergency and form a new government consisting largely of technocrats. "I believe that this would be the best solution for the crisis," he said. "I have heard some Hamas leaders talk in favor of such a government."