30 hurt as rivals clash in West Bank

Hamas officials accuse Fatah party of trying to kill prime minister

December 16, 2006|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM -- Hamas officials accused the rival Fatah party yesterday of trying to assassinate Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh during a burst of shooting a night earlier, as fresh clashes injured more than 30 people in the West Bank and raised worries on both sides about a slide toward wider violence.

Amid rising tensions, the ruling Hamas movement deployed members of a special security force around a Gaza stadium as tens of thousands of supporters gathered to mark the anniversary of the radical Islamist group's founding in 1987. Before the event, rival gunmen in Gaza briefly exchanged gunfire, but no one was hurt.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian riot police, wielding rifles and clubs, fired into the air and clashed with Hamas demonstrators who marched through downtown. The incident, during which at least 12 people suffered gunshot wounds and others were beaten, followed a string of flare-ups this week that prompted both sides to warn of civil war.

The clashes and the accusations of an assassination attempt aimed at Haniyeh raised tensions as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to make a speech today about the worsening political deadlock.

But it remains unclear how Abbas, who belongs to Fatah, plans to solve the impasse. Early elections, as urged by some in Fatah, would be seen by the elected Hamas government as tantamount to a coup attempt and could ignite worse violence.

In remarks to Hamas supporters yesterday, Haniyeh appealed for unity among the Palestinian factions.

Hamas' allegations against Fatah marked a new level in the bitter war of words between the two groups, which have been locked in a struggle for power since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January.

Some Hamas officials charged that Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah lawmaker and former security chief who holds sway over thousands of armed officers in Gaza, was to blame when Haniyeh's convoy was fired upon Thursday as the prime minister returned from Egypt. Dahlan oversees the Palestinian end of the U.S.-brokered agreement last year that sought to improve the flow of people and goods through Gaza's border crossings.

Ismail Radwan, a Hamas spokesman, called the shooting "an attempt at assassination" orchestrated by Dahlan.

Dahlan, who is considered close to Abbas and seen by some as a possible future Palestinian leader, denied the accusations and blamed Hamas for the disorder at the border crossing.

"Hamas' allegations are simply a means of masking its failures toward the Palestinian people," Dahlan said in a statement.

A bodyguard was killed and Haniyeh's son and a top political adviser were slightly injured during the shooting incident, which capped a chaotic evening at the Rafah border crossing.

Dozens of Palestinian militants stormed the border terminal and opened fire after Israel closed the crossing to block Haniyeh from returning with suitcases that held $35 million in donations to the Palestinians that Israeli officials said were destined for use in terrorism.

Abbas' Presidential Guard, which is responsible for security at the border crossing, denied targeting Haniyeh. The scene at the border terminal was described as pandemonium, with gunmen firing weapons and smashing windows, computers and other equipment.

Saeb Erekat, an Abbas aide and chief Palestinian negotiator, warned that the allegations against Dahlan amounted to a death threat. Abbas ordered an investigation yesterday into the Rafah incident.

Abbas' aides have been promising for more than two weeks that he would address the fraying political situation. Erekat said Abbas would proceed despite tensions heightened by recent violence, including the fatal shootings in Gaza this week of three boys, all under age 10, who were the sons of a Fatah intelligence official.

Abbas has said his attempts to reach agreement with Hamas on a power-sharing arrangement had hit a dead end. Aides said last week that he was leaning toward calling early elections for parliament and the presidency.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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