- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hamas militiamen and Palestinian police attacked each other with assault rifles and grenades in a chaotic firefight yesterday that turned downtown Gaza City into a battlefield and killed an aide to the Jordanian ambassador.

The shootout near the parliament building, which also wounded 11 persons, was the worst fighting since the Hamas-led government sent its militia into the streets last week and increased fears the Palestinians were sliding toward civil war.

The violence, which has killed eight persons in two weeks, was fueled by a bitter power struggle between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from the Fatah party and Hamas militants, who won January parliamentary elections and gained control of the Palestinian Cabinet.

The tension has played out on street corners throughout the Gaza Strip, where the bearded members of the 3,000-member Hamas — wearing their trademark camouflage pants, black shirts and black caps — stand guard only feet away from the Palestinian police, many of whom are Fatah loyalists.

Mr. Abbas, who has railed against the violence, told the Palestinian daily Al Quds that he has the power to disband the government and call elections.

“But such a decision would not be justified unless Hamas gets a full opportunity [to rule],” he said. “If it fails, then we can talk about disbanding the government.”

Hamas officials think the new force is the only way they can assert power and gain respect after Mr. Abbas seized control of the Palestinian security branches.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey condemned the violence and criticized the Hamas-led government for failing to protect its people. The United States and other Western nations have listed Hamas as a terrorist organization because of its attacks on Israel.

“We’re troubled by this kind of escalation in intra-Palestinian violence,” Mr. Casey said.

The nearly hourlong shootout yesterday had Palestinians fleeing and left a wide swath of Gaza City deserted.

A running battle followed, with Hamas gunmen sealing off streets between the parliament and police headquarters and taking up positions behind trees, walls and cars. Some Hamas gunmen holed up in two buildings under construction, then hurled grenades and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at police. Palestinian police responded with gunfire.

Khaled Radaida, 55, an aide to Jordanian Ambassador Yehiya Qarallah in Gaza, was killed as he drove past the gunfight in his Audi, which had a red diplomatic license plate. Three bullets hit the car’s front windshield.

Jordan demanded an immediate inquiry into the shooting, which came amid increased tensions between Hamas and the Jordanian government. Jordan has accused Hamas of smuggling weapons into the kingdom for use in attacks against public institutions and officials.

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