3 killed, 50 hurt in Gaza clashes

Shooting erupts between Palestinian security, Hamas

World

October 03, 2005|By KEN ELLINGWOOD | KEN ELLINGWOOD,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- At least three people were killed and 50 injured in the Gaza Strip during clashes yesterday between Palestinian security forces and Hamas militants, Palestinian officials said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon agreed yesterday to meet soon. The leaders had been scheduled to meet yesterday, but that session was postponed amid the flare-up in violence in Gaza.

The confrontations, which broke out after dark in two neighborhoods near Gaza City, left a Palestinian police officer and two civilian bystanders dead, Palestinian medical officials said. It was the worst violence between Palestinian security forces and militants since Israel completed its withdrawal from Gaza last month after a 38-year occupation.

There were conflicting reports over how the clashes began. Palestinian officials said gunfire erupted after officers interceded in a dispute between two men, one a member of Hamas.

But Hamas said its militants acted when Palestinian officers tried to arrest Mohammed Rantisi, a Hamas official who is the son of slain Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi. The elder Rantisi was killed by an Israeli air strike last year.

Shooting spread to a second area near Gaza City but appeared to have quieted by late evening.

The incident highlights the problem of lawlessness plaguing Abbas, who has opted not to forcefully disarm Hamas. Instead, he has sought to draw Hamas into the political process.

Last week, the militant groups agreed to adhere to a ban on public display of weaponry after an explosion during a military-style Hamas rally on Sept. 23 that killed 16 people. Palestinian officials said Hamas explosives detonated accidentally, but Hamas insisted it was the result of an Israeli air strike. Israel, which routinely acknowledges carrying out air assaults, denied involvement.

Hamas, whose military wing has carried out dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis since hostilities broke out in September 2000, plans to run in Palestinian parliamentary elections in January. The group has finished strong in three rounds of municipal elections in Gaza and the West Bank, and is the most formidable challenger to Abbas' dominant Fatah organization.

Israel says Hamas, which does not recognize the existence of the Jewish state, should be barred from running in the parliamentary elections until it disarms. Sharon and other leaders have threatened to withhold cooperation with Palestinian officials overseeing elections if Hamas takes part before giving up its weapons.

"We surely cannot do anything about the elections in Gaza, but in the West Bank it will be impossible to hold the elections without our help. We will not let Hamas participate," Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, told Israel Radio yesterday.

Participation by Hamas creates a problem for the Bush administration, which classifies it as a terrorist group but regards elections as a central part of its effort to promote democracy in the Middle East.

Also yesterday, Israeli defense officials said they were poised to resume Israel's air offensive in the Gaza Strip if militants launched new rocket attacks into communities in southern Israel. The attacks abated last week after several days of retaliatory strikes by Israel that killed four militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad and targeted several buildings allegedly used by the groups.

Abbas called Sharon yesterday to offer holiday wishes ahead of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which begins tonight.

The leaders decided to meet soon, though no date for the summit was announced, and also agreed to "tighten cooperation and to work together to advance the peace process," Sharon's office said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said summit preparations for the summit would begin in the coming days.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press and Times correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah contributed to this article.

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