8 Palestinians killed in clashes with Israel, infighting

RAMALLAH (AP) — Israeli undercover troops burst into a West Bank vegetable market Thursday afternoon, seized four men and exchanged heavy fire with Palestinian fighers in the first major raid since the Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to try to ease tensions between the sides.

Three Palestinians, all civilians, were killed and 20 wounded in the fighting. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in a harshly worded statement that Israel’s peace promises rang hollow in light of the raid and demanded $5 million in compensation for the damage to shops and cars in Ramallah.

In Gaza, four Palestinians, including a senior security officer, were killed and more than a dozen wounded in a new wave of fighting between fighters loyal to Hamas and those allied with Abbas. The widening chaos was driving ordinary Palestinians deeper into despair about their future.

Israeli officials declined comment on the timing of the Ramallah raid and its possible political costs.

The Israeli raid, which turned downtown Ramallah into a battlefield with dozens of cars smashed and vegetable carts overturned, further undercut Abbas at a time when he is locked in an increasingly violent power struggle with Hamas.

Abbas said Israel’s assurances that it is striving for peace and security cannot be believed. “The continued aggression will only lead to the destruction of all efforts aimed at realising peace,” the statement said.

In the northern Gaza Strip, a senior Palestinian security officer allied with Fateh was killed when Hamas members laid siege to his house, engaging in a protracted gunbattle with his guards, and then attacked it with grenades and a dozen rockets, Palestinian officials and witnesses said.

The officer, Col. Mohammad Ghayeb, was the chief of the Preventive Security Service in northern Gaza, and his killing was expected to trigger revenge attacks by the men under his command.

Two of Ghayeb’s guards were killed earlier in the day as they tried to defend his house.

A Hamas man was also killed in other violence in Gaza and three dozen people, including eight children, were wounded, hospital officials said.

During the standoff outside Ghayeb’s home in Beit Lahiya, dozens of women rushed into the streets in protest, chanting “Spare the bullets, shame, shame.” One resident, Amina Abu Saher, told the local Al Quds radio station that it was difficult for her to see Palestinians fighting each other and said she and the other women were determined to stop the internal fighting.

The persistent factional fighting — large-scale confrontations began in Gaza a month ago — are a result of the political deadlock between Hamas, which controls the Cabinet, and Abbas, who was elected separately and also wields considerable power. Talks on power-sharing between Hamas and Abbas’ Fateh Party have failed, while Hamas has threatened to block any attempt by Abbas to call early elections. With both sides hardening their positions, truce attempts have repeatedly collapsed.

Abbas met with leaders of political factions in Gaza on Thursday night. The smaller Islamic Jihad group, which has stayed out of the fighting, was to propose another round of unity talks, this time between Abbas and Hamas’ supreme leader, Khaled Mishaal, rather than between lower-level envoys.

As the fighting worsened, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas cut short a tour of Arab nations and returned to Gaza on Thursday. His next stop was to have been Jordan, which has offered to host a meeting between Haniyeh and Abbas, in an attempt to defuse the tensions.

The Israeli army raid in Ramallah took Palestinians by surprise.

It began when undercover troops tried to arrest fugitives from Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent Fateh offshoot, in the local vegetable market. A gunbattle erupted, and Israeli forces quickly sent reinforcements, including armoured personnel carriers, bulldozers, jeeps and an attack helicopter.

For about two hours, a heavy battle raged in the normally quiet city, sending residents scrambling for cover. Bursts of gunfire, loud booms and ambulance sirens could be heard across Ramallah. At one point, a helicopter fired large-calibre bullets in what the army said was deterrent fire.

The apparent target of the raid, Rabih Hamed, escaped with serious injuries. A photographer for the local news agency Maan was critically wounded by a gunshot to the head.

Earlier, Hamas-Fateh fighting had spilled over into the West Bank, with assailants abducting Deputy Health Minister Bashar Karmi of Hamas from his home in the town of Al  Bireh, next to Ramallah. Karmi, the most high-ranking official seized so far, was taken at gunpoint, with a hood over his head and his hands tied.

He was released after several hours, and said the abductors told him the kidnapping was meant as retaliation for the killing of four Fateh loyalists by Hamas men in Gaza the day before.

A Fateh legislator, Jamal Tirawi, said Hamas leaders in the West Bank, a Fateh stronghold, should not feel safe if Fateh loyalists where being attacked in Gaza, Hamas’ power base.

“If Hamas keeps doing what it is doing with its force in Gaza, and is killing our members, all Hamas leaders in the West Bank are in our hands,” said Tirawi, a former Al Aqsa member.  

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