Hamas, Fatah Ignore Truce Deal in Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Fatah and Hamas clashed at Cabinet ministries, universities and security headquarters Saturday in defiance of a truce that was to have calmed the seething Gaza Strip.

Gazans who had ventured from their homes, hoping for a lull in violence, scurried to seek refuge.

The cease-fire agreement was announced late Friday on the deadliest single day of battles between the two sides, who have been locked in a violent power struggle since the Islamic militant Hamas ousted Fatah from power last year.

Palestinian officials said the deal was approved by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Hamas’ supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal. But the cease-fire – the second announced this week – showed no signs of taking hold.

Gunbattles raged across Gaza after the truce was announced, continuing through the night and early Saturday. With no casualties reported overnight, some Gazans, who had spent the previous two days huddled at home for safety, were emboldened to leave their houses to go to work.

But confrontations soon heated up in Gaza City, the coastal strip’s largest town. Fatah gunmen stormed the Agriculture Ministry, ransacking offices and stealing computers, servers and official documents, said Agriculture Minister Mohammed al-Agha.

Fatah-affiliated security officials said nothing was stolen or destroyed, and denied al-Agha’s assertion that gunmen opened fire from the building’s rooftops.

Officials at the Hamas-run Communications and Postal Ministry said Fatah gunmen fired two rocket-propelled grenades at the building. Gunbattles also erupted around the Interior Ministry, which Hamas controls, and the Fatah-dominated National Security headquarters.

Universities also continued to be the site of clashes. Armed men at Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold, traded fire with Fatah fighters who took up position on the rooftop of nearby al-Azhar University and surrounding buildings. University workers ran for cover as gunshots pierced the air.

Drivers in Gaza City who had decided to test the truce declaration and leave their homes sought alternative routes around the fighting, afraid to be caught in the crossfire. Gunmen waved along a group of children who walked single-file along a wall, hoping that would offer them shelter.

Hospital officials reported 14 people wounded in the various clashes around the town.

Gunmen set up roadblocks at various points in the city, stopping cars and searching them for rivals. Fatah-affiliated security officials said Hamas fighters set up roadblocks on the road leading south from the city, and seized three Fatah loyalists.

Hamas, meanwhile, said one of its members was kidnapped, but Fatah denied knowledge of an abduction.

Even before the gunfire intensified, the streets of Gaza City had been almost empty. And the U.N. said it would not reopen its schools in Gaza on Saturday after a midyear recess, as scheduled, because of the fighting – a decision that kept nearly 200,000 students at home.

But technicians managed to restore power to part of the city that had been in darkness since facilities were damaged by fighting on Thursday. Other parts of town remained without electricity because fighting kept repair teams away.

In southern Gaza, meanwhile, gunmen stormed the Fatah-affiliated Al-Quds University campus in the town of Rafah, torching the student council building, university officials said.

More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in internal violence since Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist, won parliamentary elections a year ago and wrested power from Fatah, which advocates peacemaking with the Jewish state.

On Friday alone, the day’s death toll reached 17, including four children, and more than 200 people were wounded. Casualties were so high that hospitals ran out of ambulances to transport the dead and wounded, and blood supplies were running low.

The day’s violence came after an earlier truce collapsed Thursday afternoon, setting off fire fights that killed seven by the end of the day.

In Washington, the so-called Quartet of Mideast negotiators met on Friday to explore ways to jump-start peacemaking between Israel and Abbas despite the latest round of violence between Hamas and Fatah.

“There’s simply no reason to avoid the subject of how we get to a Palestinian state,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after meeting with foreign ministers from the European Union, United Nations and Russia.

Abbas and the Syria-based Mashaal are to meet on Tuesday in Saudi Arabia for a new round of talks on forming a coalition government, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an Abbas spokesman, said Friday.

Abbas hopes that replacing the current Hamas-led Cabinet with a more moderate Hamas-Fatah coalition would be enough to induce the West and Israel to lift crippling sanctions imposed on the Palestinian government to pressure it to abandon its militantly anti-Israel stand.

But previous rounds of coalition talks have ended in failure and often led to new bloodletting.

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