Palestinian power struggle spills violently into streets

Published April 23, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Violent clashes and mass protests erupted Saturday across the West Bank and Gaza Strip between followers of the militant group Hamas and Fatah rivals, after a Hamas leader accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of treachery.

The two sides traded gunfire and hurled stones and firebombs, escalating a fierce power struggle between militant and moderate factions focused on control over Palestinian security forces.

Abbas said Saturday he would not allow the accusations to plunge the Palestinians into civil war.

The unrest followed the president's recent moves to take control of all six security forces and Hamas' response that it would form its own shadow army, made up of militants and headed by a top fugitive Israel has been hunting for years.

Abbas' prompt veto of that plan provoked a scathing comment late Friday from ruling Hamas party's political chief, Khaled Mashaal.

"We can understand that Israel and America are persecuting us, and seeking ways to besiege and starve us, but what about the sons of our people who are plotting against us, who are following a studied plan to make us fail," Mashaal said from his base in Syria, without mentioning Abbas by name.

Fatah's senior leaders promptly accused Mashaal of "igniting and preparing for civil war." Tens of thousands of party loyalists took to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, protesting Mashaal's remarks and demanding an apology.

Clashes were ugliest Saturday in Gaza City, where Hamas and Fatah followers traded gunfire and hurled grenades and firebombs. Hundreds of university students threw stones over the wall separating Hamas- and Fatah-run schools. Fifteen people were wounded, two seriously.

Later Saturday, hundreds of Fatah activists marched to Gaza's Parliament compound, throwing stones and shattering windows in a government building.

Elsewhere across Gaza and the West Bank, tens of thousands of Fatah backers marched through the streets of cities, towns and refugee camps, denouncing Mashaal as a "dirty animal," setting tires ablaze.

In Nablus, Fatah-affiliated gunmen stormed a courthouse, ejected dozens of employees, ordered guards to lock up the building and vowed not to reopen it until Mashaal apologized.

Abbas, a moderate whose Fatah party was ousted from power in January elections, has been trying to shore up his already considerable powers to better serve as a counterweight to Hamas' militantly anti-Israel program.

He refused to directly address Mashaal's comments, saying he would instead tackle the matter through "quiet political channels."