- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2005

TEL AVIV — Palestinian police and Hamas militants clashed in gunbattles in the northern Gaza Strip yesterday, leaving at least 13 wounded in the worst internal fighting since before the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising five years ago.

The internecine Palestinian unrest coincided, ironically, with an unprecedented domestic struggle in Israel as about 15,000 police and soldiers for a second day faced off with thousands of Jewish settlers seeking to march toward Gaza to scuttle the government’s plan to withdraw from parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Egyptian mediators in Gaza have tried to broker a truce between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas after two days of meetings with the Islamic militants. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to meet with Hamas leaders until they commit to halting nearly a week of shelling and rocket fire at Israeli targets.

Early this morning, Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas said they agreed to end the clashes. “We agreed to withdraw all armed forces from the streets of northern Gaza,” the Associated Press quoted local Hamas leader Mizar Rayyan as saying.

The fighting marks the first time that Mr. Abbas has used force against the Islamic militants to enforce a calm with Israel after months of trying to negotiate with Hamas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to visit the region at the end of the week to encourage Palestinians and Israelis to work toward an orderly transfer of Gaza.

The clashes in Gaza broke out when Palestinian police and armed activists from the Fatah party torched Hamas vehicles and an office in the Jabaliya refugee camp, according to news services.

Hamas and the Palestinian Authority traded accusations over the clashes as well as warnings that the conflict was liable to escalate if the other side didn’t back down.

“The Palestinian Authority is the one that bears the responsibility for these operations,” Hamas wrote in a leaflet quoted on the Web site of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. “We won’t remain helpless in the face of the attacks on our people and the organization.”

Tensions between Hamas and Fatah have been on the rise since the Palestinian leader delayed parliamentary elections indefinitely from July. Mr. Abbas reportedly has rejected Hamas suggestions for a power-sharing arrangement after the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Late last week, Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Youssef declared a state of emergency after Hamas members attacked an armored vehicle dispatched to strongholds of the militant group to stamp out the rocket fire aimed at Israel. Mr. Abbas’ aides yesterday accused Hamas of fomenting a conflict that could implode the Palestinian government.

“Hamas is playing with fire, and it is preparing its people for a conflict,” said Tayeb Abdel Rahim, the Palestinian leader’s chief of staff. “If it continues, the results will be grave.”

The Palestinian standoff came even as Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinian militants in the West Bank who the military said were on their way to carry out a terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, at the southern Israeli farming village of Kfar Maimon, Israeli police and soldiers laid siege yesterday to an encampment with thousands of anti-government demonstrators seeking to scuttle Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s pullout plan.

The second day of a march declared illegal by police became a war of attrition, as detachments of about 15,000 security officers stood shoulder to shoulder to block demonstrators from reaching Gaza’s Gush Katif settlement bloc, which is slated for evacuation in a month.

Facing off across a gate locked by handcuffs, police scuffled with demonstrators, making about 20 arrests. Mounted deputies and water cannons stood at the ready just outside the gate in case the demonstrators tried to push their way outside.

Settler leaders vowed to reach Gaza or remain at the encampment, less than 10 miles away, for as long as necessary.

“Even if we stay here day after day, it won’t be for nothing,” said Bentsi Lieberman, a settler leader from the northern West Bank. “The sight of thousands of people remaining here, one day after another, is something never before seen in Israel.”

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