- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Armed Palestinian factions are just “centimeters” away from civil war, a top aide to President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday after two days of deadly factional fighting.

The violence, the worst since the West Bank and Gaza Strip won autonomy 12 years ago, has raged as Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party and the militant Hamas movement, which controls the Palestinian government, have struggled to agree on a unity government that can end a crippling international aid freeze.

“If we don’t reach a political solution, we are headed toward a civil war,” Nabil Amr, a communications adviser to Mr. Abbas, said in an interview. “It could happen at any time.”

Each side blames the other for the fighting that has left 12 Palestinians dead and more than 100 wounded since Sunday. No new injuries were reported yesterday, but the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Fatah militia, threatened to kill Hamas Interior Minister Saeed Seyam and Damascus-based Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meeting with Arab leaders in Cairo, appealed for an end to the fighting. “Innocent Palestinians are caught in the crossfire and we call on all parties to stop,” she said. “The Palestinians deserve calm.”

The violence has filled a vacuum left by government paralysis and the failure of the parties to agree on a government program that would meet international conditions for the restoration of aid — recognition of Israel, a renunciation of violence and agreement to honor past agreements with Israel.

Mr. Amr said he opposed a unity government because of the differences between Hamas and Fatah over whether to recognize Israel and conduct peace talks. He proposed alternative solutions to the crisis, such as new elections or the formation of a Cabinet made up of political independents and technocrats.

“Yesterday a red line was crossed, but they retreated,” Mr. Amr said of Monday’s fighting. “I am afraid that without a political solution, more groups will cross the red line. Gaza isn’t just chaos. It’s a big storehouse of weapons. Each family has its own militia and its own organization.”

Fatah leaders accused Mr. Seyam, the interior minister, of ordering Hamas gunmen to fire on a group of protesters in the Gaza community of Khan Younis. The Gaza clashes spread to the West Bank, where Hamas-controlled government offices were torched and the bodyguards of the deputy parliament speaker was fired upon.

Since Hamas took over the government after elections in January, gunmen from its military wing have sparred with Fatah security services. The atmosphere deteriorated further because of the economic boycott, which left the Palestinian Authority unable to pay the salaries of policemen and other public servants.

Sheik Yazeeb Khader, editor of the Hamas newspaper Mumbar el-Islah, said he and other editors had kept a low profile in recent days for fear of new clashes. As he crunched across the shards of glass that littered the floor of a Hamas political office in Ramallah, he claimed the windows had been smashed over the weekend by vandals acting with the approval of the Fatah-controlled security services.

Ultimately, he said, Mr. Abbas should be held responsible.

“This took place under the eyes of the security agencies,” he said as he flipped through pictures taken by a Palestinian journalist showing a policeman standing alongside Fatah militants as they burned government buildings.

“The government didn’t fail. The government was made to fail and the presidency participated” in the failure, he said.

Even so, Mr. Khader said, Hamas prefers a unity government with Fatah. But he insisted that Hamas would prevail over Fatah in any new election.

A recent poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center showed a statistical dead heat between the parties. The same survey indicated that Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was perceived as more trustworthy than Mr. Abbas.

The Ha’aretz newspaper reported yesterday that mediators from Qatar had suggested that the parties form a unity government that would be headed by an independent prime minister.

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