13 killed as Palestinian infighting intensifies

Published May 16, 2007

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Hamas gunmen riddled a Fatah police jeep with gunfire at close range Tuesday, killing eight policemen in the most ruthless round yet of factional fighting, pushing the Palestinian unity government closer to collapse.

Gunmen in black ski masks controlled the streets as terrified residents huddled in their homes. Israel, too, was briefly drawn into the battle.

"I don't know when it's going to end and what the future will bring, " said Salman Abu Arafeh, 42, an interior decorator who, along with his wife and two children, was pinned down by gunfire in the hallway of his apartment for hours. Thirteen people were killed in Tuesday's fighting.

In the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for the immediate implementation of a security plan that would put all rival forces under one command. However, his call is unlikely to be heeded: The fighting made it clear the Hamas-Fatah power struggle was never really resolved, despite formation of the unity government in March.

Gaza's turmoil further weakened hopes for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, despite a new push by the Arab world to bring the sides to the table, based on an offer of Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from all lands it occupied in 1967.

Israel has expressed major reservations, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Jordan's King Abdullah on Tuesday that he's ready to meet with Arab leaders anywhere to talk about the idea. Abdullah, in turn, asked Olmert to set a timetable for reaching a peace deal.

Negotiations, however, are inconceivable if the Palestinians descend into a protracted civil war.

This week's fighting was the worst since Hamas and Fatah agreed to share power in February. In all, 21 people have been killed and dozens wounded in three days of street fighting.

Two Israeli helicopter gunships and three tanks moved toward the Karni cargo crossing with Israel, and Hamas fighters quickly withdrew. At one point, a major in the Palestinian Presidential Guard was killed by Israeli army fire as he tried to leave the crossing, security officials said.

Before sundown, Hamas said it fired five rockets at Sderot, an Israeli town near Gaza, in retaliation for the Israeli attack, hitting a house and a school and wounding 17 Israelis, one seriously. It was the first time in three weeks that Hamas has claimed responsibility for a rocket barrage.