- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2006

TEL AVIV — Hamas- and Fatah-affiliated gunmen engaged in a shootout at the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza City yesterday, leaving three persons wounded in spite of efforts by both parties to defuse a crisis over control of the security services.

It was the second day of violent clashes between the groups, which battled politically for control of the Palestinian parliament in January elections.

As Egyptian mediators brokered talks between the rival groups over the weekend, thousands of Fatah gunmen marched in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protest Hamas’ decision to appoint its own police chief and to set up a new branch of the security services.

The unrest underscores the deterioration of what was already a fragile security situation as Hamas, which won the January elections, struggles to take charge of the Fatah-dominated bureaucracy.

The Health Ministry melee erupted after a group of Fatah members, some of them armed, arrived at the ministry to request government assistance for relatives in need of medical treatment abroad. After they were advised of Hamas Health Minister Bassem Naim’s decision to cut about $2 million in subsidies for foreign medical treatment, the gunmen fired into the air.

The health minister reportedly called members of Hamas’ military wing to help police re-establish control, sparking gunbattles in the streets outside. The violence ended after about 45 minutes when police arrested three Fatah gunmen.

“We are warning all the people making these disruptions in Gaza that we will shoot to kill next time,” said Khaled Abu Hilal, a spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry.

A spokesman for the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Fatah offshoot, denied that its members were involved in the shootout.

However, Israeli newspapers quoted a member of the militant group threatening to fire a missile into Tel Aviv in retaliation for the killing by Israeli border police yesterday of a Palestinian militant in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

On Saturday, gunfights erupted between Hamas and Fatah students at neighboring Gaza City universities affiliated with the two parties, leaving 20 wounded.

The standoff became even more acute after Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Syria, accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of working to undermine the Hamas-led government.

Politicians from Hamas and Fatah met on Saturday night and resolved to ease the standoff.

Palestinian public opinion overwhelmingly opposes a civil war between the factions, but observers said that as long as the government cannot pay the salaries of public employees — most of whom belong to Fatah — the tension is likely to persist.

“Both parties are determined to contain the crisis and tensions. But these tensions will continue to play out as long as the Palestinians are under siege,” said Said Zeedani, a Palestinian political analyst.

“This violence really has to do with external pressure, with the financial crisis,” he said. “There is no money coming, and that is an additional cause of tension.”

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