- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip | Hamas forces battled Fatah-linked fighters with mortars and machine guns in a crowded Gaza neighborhood Saturday, leaving at least nine dead in the worst Palestinian infighting in nine months.

About 88 people were injured, 12 of them children, hospital officials said.

Explosions and gunfire could be heard throughout the day in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shijaiyeh, a stronghold of the Fatah-allied Hilles clan. Hamas accuses the clan of hiding suspects behind a car bombing last week that killed five activists of the Islamic militant group.

Hamas and the largely secular, Western-backed Fatah have waged a violent struggle for control of Gaza for years, but there have been few signs of Fatah resistance since Hamas seized control of the strip in June 2007.

Relations between the factions deteriorated sharply last week after the car bombing that killed Hamas militants in Gaza, and each side has been cracking down on political opponents with growing intensity. Hamas in Gaza and Fatah loyalists of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who control the West Bank have carried out mass arrests.

In the West Bank, Mr. Abbas’ troops enforced a new ban on public assembly and expanded their arrest sweep beyond Hamas. Club-wielding security men arrested and beat dozens of supporters of a nonviolent Islamic group.

The Gaza clashes began when Hamas raided Shijaiyeh under heavy morning fog. Security forces stormed several high-rise buildings and rounded up rooftop snipers, other gunmen and wounded fighters, said Islam Shahwan, a Hamas police spokesman.

Heavy battles with mortars and machine guns ensued. Three Hamas policemen and a Hilles member were killed, hospital officials said.

It was the deadliest internal Palestinian fighting since November, when Hamas police killed seven people in a Fatah-organized memorial rally for the late Yasser Arafat.

Ahmed Hilles, a clan leader and Fatah official, said Hamas police cut off electricity as they launched the raid. He explained why the clan fought back.

“You have to decide: Either be trampled under Hamas’ shoes, or stand in dignity,” he told the Associated Press by telephone, with gunshots crackling in the background. Mr. Hilles apparently fled to Israel later in the day.

By Saturday afternoon, Hamas police had seized control of Shijaiyeh, home to an estimated 100,000 people. They deployed hundreds of police, who went house to house in search of weapons and suspects. In all, more than 50 people were arrested, including some who had tried to flee disguised as women, Hamas said.

Hamas also fired several mortar shells toward the nearby border with Israel, apparently in an attempt to prevent suspects from getting away.

More than two dozen members of the Hilles clan who fled the fighting were allowed through a Gaza crossing into Israel, Israeli military officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because no official announcement was made.

cDalia Nammari reported from Ramallah. Associated Press writer Ali Daraghmeh in Nablus contributed to this report.

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