- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gunmen from the rival Hamas and Fatah movements battled with grenades and mortars in Gaza City for a third straight day yesterday, with the Islamist Palestinian prime minister accusing his rivals of receiving “dirty American funding and arms.”

Two men died yesterday in the bloody power struggle between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, bringing the death toll to 25 since late Thursday.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas issued a statement calling for calm.

But in a clear jab at Mr. Abbas, Mr. Haniyeh criticized “troublemakers who are trying to veer away from the path of our people” by receiving “dirty American funding and arms.” The White House is seeking some $85 million to help bolster Mr. Abbas’ forces.

The violence, which has halted talks between Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas on forming a unity government, has been fueled by Mr. Abbas’ pledge to call early elections if the negotiations fail.

Hamas, which defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections last year, opposes a new vote.

Streets in the hardest-hit neighborhoods were deserted yesterday, and only bakeries and grocery stores opened for business. Gaza City’s main outdoor market was closed. Al Azhar University called off exams scheduled yesterday, and the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry, which oversees several security forces, told its employees to go home.

A gunbattle erupted yesterday near the Islamic University, killing one man, according to hospital officials. In a firefight elsewhere in the city, a Palestinian policeman was killed.

Before dawn, Hamas gunmen fired mortars at the Abbas-allied Preventive Security Service headquarters and at the home of the force’s chief, Rashid Abu Shbak, officials said.

In fighting around the compound on Friday, six Hamas gunmen were killed and a seventh died yesterday of wounds sustained in that battle, said Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha.

Mr. Taha accused Fatah loyalists of storming a mosque near the security headquarters and executing a senior Hamas activist inside while he was reading the Koran, the Muslim holy book. Blood stains were still visible yesterday on the mosque’s carpet and the bathroom tiles.

Fatah denied it had stormed the mosque, but said Hamas gunmen had used the mosque as a base for attacking the security headquarters.

At another Gaza City mosque, Hamas activists hung posters with photos of Hamas supporters killed or wounded in the fighting. “These are the criminal activities of the pro-Zionist, American criminals,” the caption read, in reference to Fatah.

Mediators from two small factions, meanwhile, tried to win the release of hostages taken by the two sides. Late yesterday, seven Hamas activists and four Fatah members were freed in the southern town of Khan Younis, officials said.

Kidnappings have become a common tactic during the infighting. In all cases so far, hostages have been released unharmed. As of late yesterday, roughly a dozen people on each side remained in captivity, officials said.

Tensions have been high since Hamas swept parliamentary elections in January 2006, ending four decades of Fatah rule. Those tensions have frequently erupted into violence, killing some 50 persons in Gaza since early December.

In its election campaign, Hamas promised to root out corruption and improve social services. But the Hamas-led government has been paralyzed by an international boycott and has accomplished little on its agenda.

Israel and Western donors have cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to the Palestinian government, demanding Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Hamas has rejected the conditions, despite deepening poverty in the West Bank and Gaza caused by the sanctions.

Talks on a unity government have been suspended until the fighting ends.

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