- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2006

TEL AVIV — Three children of a senior Palestinian security officer were killed when a hail of bullets riddled their car in the streets of Gaza City yesterday, an apparent assassination attempt threatening an outbreak of internecine violence at a time of political crisis between Hamas and Fatah.

Baha Balousheh, a top officer in the Palestinian military intelligence and a Fatah loyalist, blamed Hamas for the deaths of his sons, ages 3, 6 and 9. He had helped crack down on Hamas a decade ago and was twice before targeted by assassins, but was not in the car with his children yesterday morning.

Hamas denied responsibility for the attack and condemned it.

The three children were killed along with their driver. Doctors said one of the boys was hit by 10 bullets to the head.

The car was soaked in blood. A child’s backpack, emblazoned with cartoon characters and the word “Friend,” lay on the front seat, covered in blood. Another school bag was in the back, and a small plastic bag with a sandwich was covered with blood, the Associated Press reported.

Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas are already at legal loggerheads because negotiations on a power-sharing “unity” government have deadlocked, and Fatah officials have suggested calling new elections. Now, Palestinians fear that outrage over the killing of the three boys could boil over onto the streets, boosting fear of a civil war.

As the bodies were taken to a cemetery, thousands of angry Fatah supporters joined the procession, including hundreds of Fatah-allied security officers who fired in the air.

Later in the day, hundreds of Hamas supporters marched in Gaza City, waving the party’s green flags and condemning violence. “No to killing innocents,” they said. “Yes to law and order.”

The crowd continued to Mr. Balousheh’s home to pay condolences. The visit passed quietly.

“This incident is really dangerous. There is a growing tension between the two sides, and now the tension on the ground is increasing, especially in Gaza,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian labor minister. “Unfortunately I don’t see a solution. This will continue for a while.”

Mr. Khatib said the only way an escalation could be stopped would be for the Hamas-run Palestinian government to make arrests in the shooting.

Just Sunday, anonymous gunmen opened fire on the car of Hamas Interior Minister Said Siyam, though no one was injured.

Tension has been rising ever since Hamas was lifted into power in a January parliamentary election. Although Hamas has a monopoly on the Cabinet now, the group has negotiated for months with Fatah on a “unity” government. The goal is to create a Cabinet acceptable to donor countries, which have withheld millions of dollars in aid because Hamas refuses to recognize Israel.

On a visit to Iran, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, who announced a $250 million Iranian aid pledge, reiterated his refusal to endorse the peace negotiations.

Top Fatah officials want Mr. Abbas to call new elections, though Hamas opponents contend that there is no provision in the Palestinian constitution giving the Authority president the power to make such a move. The constitutional flap provides a crisis atmosphere for rival security officers, militias, and families looking to settle old scores.

“If Abbas doesn’t take a serious step toward solving the situation, the ball will be left in the hands of Hamas and Fatah militias on the ground,” said Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based political analyst. “He must not leave a vacuum of authority; otherwise, this authority will be used by someone else.”

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