- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2006

TEL AVIV — Armed clashes intensified between rival Palestinian factions yesterday as Hamas accused Fatah fighters loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas of fomenting civil war and trying to assassinate Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh at a Gaza border station Thursday night.

The latest violence threatened to undermine months of talks on a unity government between the Islamist Hamas party and Mr. Abbas’ once-dominant Fatah to end a deadly power struggle within the Palestinian territories.

Security officers and Fatah militia men fired into a crowd of demonstrators carrying green Hamas banners through central Ramallah yesterday, wounding at least 31.

“What a war, Mahmoud Abbas, you are launching, first against God, and then against Hamas,” said Hamas’ parliamentary faction leader Khalil al-Hayya before a crowd of 100,000 Hamas supporters gathered at a Gaza rally.

Earlier in the day, Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan accused Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan of attempting to assassinate Mr. Haniyeh as he returned to the Gaza Strip from a fundraising trip abroad. Fatah spokesmen denied the charges.

The spike in tensions came just a day before Mr. Abbas is scheduled to deliver a major speech that’s expected to rebuke the Hamas-led Cabinet and raise the possibility of new elections.

“The Hamas movement bears full responsibility for any injury to a Palestinian citizen, Dahlan or others,” said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator who is an aide to Mr. Abbas.

The Hamas prime minister was delayed on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing point Thursday. Israel had shut the border to block Mr. Haniyeh from carrying tens of millions of dollars into the Gaza Strip. After about seven hours, Mr. Haniyeh was allowed to cross the border, but was forced to leave the money behind in Egypt.

On the Palestinian side of the border, Hamas gunmen forced their way past Mr. Abbas’ presidential guard, which maintains security at the crossing, and shot up security cameras and computers in the terminal.

Once Mr. Haniyeh had emerged on the Palestinian side of the border terminal, his entourage came under a hail of gunfire that killed a bodyguard and wounded his son and his chief political adviser, Ahmed Yousef.

Addressing the Gaza rally of supporters yesterday, Mr. Haniyeh said the takeover of the border crossing by Hamas gunmen “signals the beginning of the rebellion to protect our honor and sovereignty. Foreign elements are deciding who comes in and who goes out.” The prime minister added that Hamas joined the government to become “martyrs,” not Cabinet ministers.

A U.S.-brokered agreement on the Rafah border station gives both Israel and monitors from the European Union the right to close the crossing on a temporary basis. But officers from Mr. Abbas’ presidential guard are responsible for security — a fact noted by Hamas officials who accused Fatah of an assassination attempt.

The clashes were just the latest developments in a week of Hamas-Fatah turmoil.

On Monday, three children under the age of 9 were killed in Gaza City in an apparent assassination attempt on their father, a Fatah loyalist and a top officer in the Palestinian military intelligence service. Two days later, a leader of Hamas’ military wing was assassinated outside a court building in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.

Since coming to power in parliamentary elections in March, the Hamas government, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, has faced a U.S.-backed international aid boycott that has left the government nearly bankrupt.

Mr. Haniyeh was just returning from a two-week trip abroad during which he got pledges of $250 million from Iran. Hamas’ reign has been accompanied by steadily increasing chaos, especially in Gaza.

The prospect of Hamas breaking the boycott and strengthening its military wing is a cause for concern in Israel, the United States and allies in the region.

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