Gaza battles raise fears of full civil war

1143.jpgGAZA (Reuters) — Palestinians battled across Gaza on Tuesday in what looked ever more like civil war as the forces of President Mahmoud Abbas rounded on those of the Islamist prime minister and their unity government headed for collapse.The biggest security force loyal to Abbas, favoured by the West, was ordered onto the streets to defeat what his secular Fateh supporters called a “coup” by Hamas Islamists after Hamas gunmen stormed a key Fateh security base in Gaza.At least eight men were killed and 50 wounded, hospital officials said, taking to 28 the number of dead in the coastal enclave since Saturday. Early on Tuesday, the Gaza homes of both Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas were fired on.

Accounts varied on how far Hamas fighters had taken control of the Fateh security base, one of several that they ordered evacuated three hours earlier in an unprecedented ultimatum.

Fateh officials said their men held their ground.

Intense gunfire and explosions could be heard from the base of the National Security Forces. Reinforcements from the NSF were later seen moving in vehicles through the deserted streets of Gaza City towards areas where Hamas had asserted control.

“Advance!” an order from NSF commanders said, as some Hamas radio transmitters were briefly jammed by signals broadcasting music praising Fateh military leaders.

“Confront the seekers of the coup,” the order said. “Defend your dignity and military honour. Defend the people’s security.” At least four Hamas men were killed in the ensuing battle, said Goma Assaqa, a doctor at Gaza’s Shifa Hospital.

Abbas, successor to the late Yasser Arafat, convened a meeting of Fateh’s central committee in the West Bank city of Ramallah, near Jerusalem, for 8:00pm (1700 GMT) at which, aides said, leaders would decide whether to quit the government they formed in March under Haniyeh in an effort to reduce tensions.

If they do, along with some independent ministers, Abbas could dismiss the government and try to rule by decree for a time. But any new Cabinet would need approval from parliament, where Hamas has had a majority since an election last year.

Fear

Most of the Gaza Strip’s 1.5 million people took refuge in their homes. Crammed along a 45km sliver of coast and surrounded by a tight Israeli security cordon, they have little chance to flee through the restricted main crossing into Egypt.

“I think we are in Iraq, not in Gaza,” Ammar, a 40-year-old father of six, said. “Snipers on rooftops killing people. Bodies mutilated and dumped in the streets in very humiliating ways.

“What else does civil war mean but this?” Since the January 2006 election win by Hamas, founded on its support among the poor of Gaza, more than 600 Palestinians have been killed, according to one estimate, in factional fighting.

After some months of relative calm, it flared up again last month before easing following a truce brokered by Egypt.

Hamas and other Islamist groups in Gaza also resumed firing rockets into Israel, further reducing prospects for any progress towards peace negotiations. Israeli and Western sanctions against the Hamas-led government have crippled the Palestinian economy.

The United States has been helping train and arm Abbas’ forces, citing the Fateh leader as a moderate committed to peace negotiations and a counterweight to Hamas, which has ties to Iran and Syria, both dedicated adversaries of Washington.

Fateh’s Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades declared a state of emergency in Gaza, saying it was on an offensive footing.

Abbas, who warned last week that his people were on the brink of civil war, issued an appeal for an immediate ceasefire.

The violence, described by Gazans as more brutal than in the past, has included a shoot-out in a hospital, dropping foes to their deaths from high-rise buildings and the execution-style slaying of a Fateh field commander outside his home.

In one incident, Hamas gunmen burned down the house of a leader of Fateh’s Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, prompting him to vow: “A house for a house and blood for blood. I swear to God I will kill every Hamas person, a civilian or military.” Hamas gunmen swept into Fateh posts, capturing some in battles and others without a fight, residents said. They said the northern and central Gaza Strip were under Hamas control.

Fateh said the positions were of minor importance.

In a widening of the conflict, Abbas’ Presidential Guard seized equipment at an office of Hamas’ Aqsa television in Ramallah. The station said three staff were detained.

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