Hamas cracks down on Fateh after deadly rally

Hamas rounded up at least 200 Fateh party members in Gaza on Tuesday, the day after Islamist gunmen killed seven people at a mass rally that underscored the deep divisions between rival Palestinians.The official Palestinian press denounced the killings as a “massacre” while hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets in towns across the occupied West Bank to vent their anger against Hamas.

The Hamas force that has policed Gaza since the Islamist group seized power in June “arrested scores of senior Fateh members and members of our branch offices”, senior Fateh official Ibrahim Abu Naga told AFP.

The raids came after Hamas police violently dispersed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Fateh supporters, who had massed in the heart of Gaza City on Monday to commemorate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death.

Seven people were killed and another 130 wounded, according to medics, in an incident condemned by human rights groups. Monday’s gathering was the largest mobilisation of support for the Fateh Party of Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas since Hamas routed the secular faction’s security forces in clashes five months ago.

Hundreds of thousands of people had poured into Gaza City waving yellow Fateh Party flags and portraits of Arafat, in a sign of what some analysts said was growing popular discontent with Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement.

On Tuesday, flags in the West Bank flew at half-mast and schools and shops across Gaza remained closed after Abbas declared a three-day period of mourning for those killed by “the bullets of the putschists”, referring to Hamas.

A spokesman for the Hamas-run Executive Force, a paramilitary group that polices the Gaza Strip, confirmed it had arrested 200 people involved in Monday’s violence. Fateh spokesman Hazem Abu Shanab said Hamas arrested about 400 Fateh members.

In an interview with the Hamas-run Palestine newspaper, senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said his movement had “to take all necessary steps to prevent a repeat of the troubling events in cooperation with official forces.”

Hamas blamed Fateh gunmen for instigating the clashes, accusing them of firing down on police from the rooftops around the square, but that account was disputed by an AFP correspondent and several witnesses.

In Ramallah on Tuesday, about 1,500 demonstrators waving Palestinian flags and yellow Fateh banners marched through the streets cursing Hamas chiefs and praising Arafat, who died in a Paris hospital three years ago.

“From Ramallah to Gaza, Abu Ammar is a symbol of pride!” the crowds in Ramallah chanted, referring to Arafat by his nom de guerre. Anti-Hamas slogans were scrawled on walls and protesters also drew caricatures of the Islamist group, including drawings of a bearded man aiming a gun at his head with the caption “Hamas means suicide.”

Another 1,000 people joined a similar rally in Bethlehem. The Palestinian Authority’s official newspaper Al Hayat A Jadid called Monday’s shootings a “massacre”, while the leading Al Quds newspaper said the rally had become a “referendum” on Hamas rule in Gaza. Abdel Nasser Srur, an Al Aqsa University professor, said the rally showed that Hamas no longer enjoys great popularity among the Palestinian people.

“There are voices within Hamas that are fearful of the future but they are being shut down. This gives the impression that Gaza is controlled by a death and terror machine,” Srur said. Many Gazans are frustrated by the political divisions and infighting that have wracked the Palestinian territories and the deteriorating conditions in the impoverished coastal strip since Hamas seized power.

Al Azhar University professor Naji Shurab said the rally was a “rejection of all the horrible conditions, the poverty, the political divisions, the separation of the territories, the violence, and the blockade.”

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