Factions step up fight in Gaza

Abbas home fired on as Hamas threatens to boycott elections

December 18, 2006|By Rushdi abu Alouf and Richard Boudreaux | Rushdi abu Alouf and Richard Boudreaux,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Fighting escalated between Hamas and Fatah yesterday as the foreign minister's convoy and the president's residence came under fire in Gaza City a day after President Mahmoud Abbas announced that he would call early elections to try to end a political stalemate. Three people were killed in the latest fighting between the Palestinian factions.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declared that his Hamas movement, which controls the Cabinet and parliament, would boycott an election, and he warned that any attempt to hold one could lead to "large disturbances."

A 19-year-old woman and an officer in Abbas' presidential guard died during a day of street and rooftop gun battles, medical officials said, and the body of a commander loyal to Abbas was found after being abducted. At least 20 other people, including a French journalist, were reported wounded.

Abbas, the Fatah movement leader, was not in Gaza at the time of the attack on his residence. Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, a prominent Hamas official, fled his vehicle after it came under sniper fire near his office and was unharmed.

The clashes were the heaviest in weeks between armed factions of the Palestinian Authority's two largest political movements. They have frequently skirmished for political control and over policy toward Israel since shortly after Hamas' election victory early this year ended decades of Fatah dominance over Palestinian affairs.

In the evening, Hamas officials said the two sides had reached a verbal agreement to halt the fighting, but no one showed up at a news conference at which a signed text was to be presented. Sporadic shooting continued late into the night.

Earlier, Abbas issued a statement calling for restraint, saying, "I ask the people to show steadfastness and national spirit and avoid provocations intended to destroy the democracy and blow up the situation."

Abbas said Saturday that early elections for president and parliament were the only way to break a deadlock between his faction, which wants to revive peace talks with Israel, and Hamas, which is sworn to the Jewish state's destruction.

But any election, if it happens, would be at least four to six months away, election officials said yesterday. Many Palestinians are hoping that Hamas and Fatah will resume negotiations on a unity government to short-circuit this building crisis.

Western nations and Israel have imposed a crippling financial blockade on the West Bank and Gaza in an effort to force Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence. Abbas tried for months to persuade Hamas to give way to a broad-based "unity government" acceptable to the outside, but their talks broke down this month.

Yesterday's shooting started at dawn when militants with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades attacked a training camp for Abbas' presidential guard here, killing an officer and setting fire to the tents.

Later, the ambush of Zahar's convoy set off a round of armed exchanges. Presidential guard soldiers seized control of the Hamas-run agriculture and transport ministry buildings as they moved to secure a section of the city around Abbas' residence, which eventually came under mortar fire that wounded two guards.

Gunmen opened fire at an evening Fatah rally where thousands of people were marching in support of the president. Three people were wounded.

Hamas and Fatah traded accusations and denials over who was responsible for the clashes.

"What is happening is a real military coup: assassinations, attempted assassinations, the occupation of ministries," Zahar told a news conference.

Speaking to supporters at a Gaza refugee camp, Haniyeh denounced Abbas' move toward early elections as "illegitimate" and "inflammatory."

"The Palestinian government calls on all people to show restraint and to alleviate tension," he said. "The battle of the Palestinian people is not an internal battle. It is a battle against the [Israeli] occupation."

Undeterred, Abbas met at his West Bank headquarters with members of the Central Election Commission to discuss a possible date for voting. The head of the panel said it would take three months to organize elections. Saeb Erekat, a top presidential aide, predicted balloting would be held around June.

That would allow time for Hamas to resume talks with Fatah on a unity government, a possibility Abbas said he was leaving open.

But Mustaf Assawaf, a Palestinian political analyst in Gaza who is sympathetic to Hamas, said the violence was shrinking any room for compromise.

"Whoever expects Hamas to change its position on Israel if dialogue resumes is deluded," Assawaf said.

Hamas members said they would try to have parliament declare any early elections illegal. Palestinian law makes no provision for elections ahead of schedule; Abbas' aides say that gives him leeway to call them.

Abbas, who was elected in January 2005, could resign to cause a new presidential election. But many doubt that he has the legal right to dissolve the parliament.

Elections might be impossible to conduct if there is violent resistance and could lose their legitimacy if Hamas stages a peaceful boycott. Syrian-based exiled leaders of smaller Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, also rejected Abbas' move toward a vote.

Hamas would risk losing popular support if it stood for election - but also if it refused.

Rushdi abu Alouf and Richard Boudreaux write for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times contributed to this article.

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