- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Scores of Fatah gunmen stormed Palestinian government offices yesterday, firing their rifles and demanding jobs. Police battled the militants at five locations, leaving 23 injured.

The clashes highlighted the Gaza Strip’s chaos, which will present a daunting challenge to the incoming Hamas government.

Before the Jan. 25 parliamentary elections, the Fatah Party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas promised security jobs to a host of militants linked to the organization.

Since Fatah’s electoral defeat, the militants have repeatedly raided government buildings demanding those jobs. Other Fatah activists who already have government positions — including nearly 60,000 members of the security forces — fear they will be fired when Hamas forms its Cabinet in the coming weeks.

Hamas has said it hopes to trim the bloated Palestinian bureaucracy — especially the security forces — and may be forced to lay off tens of thousands of workers if the international community follows through with its threats to cut off aid to the government once the militant group assumes power.

Incoming Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razek said reforming the security forces will be difficult but necessary. “They have to be targeted. Most of the corruption is within the security forces.”

Early yesterday, militants blocking a road leading to the main Israel-Gaza crossing point — because Mr. Abbas was going to use the road to travel from Gaza to the West Bank through Israel — got into a gunfight with police who tried to remove them.

Two dozen gunmen also briefly infiltrated Gaza’s power plant, exchanging fire with police, officials said. Gunmen also briefly entered a military hospital near the central Gaza city of Khan Younis, and militants and police engaged in a gunbattle outside a police compound.

The most violent confrontation began about 10:30 a.m., when a group of gunmen, some wearing bandanas from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group affiliated with Fatah, stormed into the government compound and tried to break into the finance ministry building, some climbing into windows after guards slammed the door shut.

About five minutes later, police sirens blared outside, and scores of officers, some wearing balaclavas, jumped out of their cars and began firing in the air. For 25 minutes, the whole complex, filled with office workers, turned into a battle scene.

The gunbattles were the most intense in months and came a day after Hamas’ designated prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, handed Mr. Abbas a proposed 24-member Cabinet dominated by Hamas activists.

Mr. Abbas was not expected to submit the list to parliament for approval before Israel’s March 28 elections.

Mr. Abbas, who favors negotiating a final peace settlement with Israel, has urged Hamas to moderate its violent ideology but likely will approve the Cabinet, his aides say. He will, however, warn Hamas that its refusal to soften positions that could hurt the Palestinians’ international standing.

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