Security forces clash in Gaza

1 killed, dozen hurt in shootout outside parliament building

May 23, 2006|By LAURA KING | LAURA KING,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- A fierce gunbattle erupted yesterday outside the Palestinian parliament building between rival Palestinian security forces, killing one man, wounding about a dozen people and deepening the sense of anarchy gripping the Gaza Strip.

Passers-by scattered in panic as gunmen - some of them belonging to a new Hamas-led police force and others to a unit loyal to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas - crouched against graffiti-covered walls and behind parked cars, squeezing off rounds from their automatic rifles and firing rocket-propelled grenades in one another's direction.

A driver for the Jordanian ambassador was killed by a stray bullet in the fighting, which raged for nearly two hours in daylight in the heart of Gaza City. Each faction denied starting the shootout.

As the din of fighting rose, cars made screeching U-turns to get away from the gunfire. A small group of veiled women ran from the area.

"How can we continue like this?" one of the women said, her breath ragged with sobs.

Tensions in Gaza have been mounting since Hamas took power in March. They soared last week when Hamas sent a new 3,000-member police force into the streets, in explicit defiance of Abbas' veto of its deployment. Since then, gunmen from the Hamas contingent and those of Abbas' Fatah faction have engaged in an uneasy standoff, narrowly eyeing one another while laying claim to adjacent street corners.

Recent days have brought a steady pounding of ambush-style shootings and other reprisal attacks.

On Saturday, someone tried to assassinate a senior security chief, an ally of Abbas, who was gravely injured when a booby-trapped elevator exploded in his heavily guarded compound. Fatah officials stopped just short of blaming Hamas for the attempt.

The next day, a bomb was disarmed on a road used by another senior Fatah-allied security chief.

Hours before yesterday's shootout, a Fatah gunman was killed in a firefight in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.

The man killed in yesterday's fighting near the parliament building was identified as Khaled Radaida, the driver for Yehiyeh Qarallah, the Jordanian ambassador in Gaza. Qarallah was not in the car, which carried diplomatic plates.

Television footage showed the car being hit and slowly rolling backward with the driver slumped at the wheel.

The Jordanian diplomat received condolence calls from Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader. Qarallah went to Gaza's main hospital to identify his driver's body and emerged in tears.

Even before yesterday's firefight, Palestinian officials had expressed increasing alarm at the deteriorating security situation. The main Palestinian factions, including Fatah and Hamas, were scheduled to hold talks later in the week aimed at calming the situation, but it was unclear whether that meeting would go ahead.

"Civil war is the red line that nobody dares cross," Abbas had declared Sunday. But others said the factional battles could be nearing a point of no return.

"It's a powder keg," said Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi. "The security forces must be depoliticized; otherwise, you end up with warlords and militias."

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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