Fatah, Hamas sign cease-fire

Factions' leaders try to stop unrest

December 20, 2006|By Ken Ellingwood and Rushdi abu Alouf | Ken Ellingwood and Rushdi abu Alouf,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The leaders of the two main Palestinian factions called for an end to fighting that killed six more people yesterday and forced Palestinians to wonder whether their society was hurtling toward civil war.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas signed a fresh cease-fire agreement aimed at stopping nearly a week of clashes.

It was not clear, however, whether the latest attempt to quell unrest would succeed, amid rising tension driven largely by Abbas' call for early elections that could undercut Hamas' historic victory in January's polls.

Under the agreement, both sides are to withdraw their forces from the streets, leaving only ordinary police officers to maintain law and order. The deal, brokered by Egyptian officials, was announced separately in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The accord capped a long day of violent clashes that had left earlier attempts at a cease-fire in a shambles, and prompted the education ministry to cancel classes today.

The day began with a shootout at Gaza City's biggest hospital that left a Hamas officer dead, and continued with an ambush on a busy downtown street that claimed two members of the Fatah-linked intelligence service and wounded seven bystanders, including five children.

Two other Fatah members were abducted and killed, and their bodies left on a street near the hospital. A second Hamas officer died late yesterday of wounds suffered in the hospital shootout. The rolling clashes in Gaza left many stores and other businesses shuttered by midafternoon.

The escalating violence occurred against a backdrop of verbal jousting between Haniyeh and Abbas.

Amid the clashes, Abbas issued a statement saying that the violence over the past few days had "harmed the Palestinian struggle and the heroic image it built over the last 10 years." Abbas, who was in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said that "dialogue is the only way to achieve our national goals."

Shortly afterward, Haniyeh addressed Palestinians in a broadcast from the Gaza Strip.

"We are all Palestinians in the same boat, and we are interested in seeing this boat reach safe shores," Haniyeh said in a speech that mainly served as his rebuttal to Abbas' call for early elections. Haniyeh, who became prime minister after Hamas won parliamentary elections in January, rejected the call for elections and insisted his government is legitimate.

"The call for elections is not constitutional," Haniyeh said. "We refuse this call and we stress the need to respect the choice of the Palestinian people."

Sporadic shootouts have broken out in Gaza and the West Bank since Hamas' election win set off the power struggle with the once-dominant Fatah. But the two sides generally stopped fighting after a day or two, even when clashes have been fierce. In early October, confrontations left eight people dead in a day.

The question on the minds of Palestinians this time is whether the parties can rein in their gunmen before it is too late.

Palestinians have known factional rivalries throughout much of their quest for an independent state. But they generally view civil war as a line too costly to cross. Even amid recent violence, most Palestinians seemed to view full-scale civil breakdown as unlikely, though they grew more nervous.

"We are not there, and I don't think we will get there," said Bassam Nasser, who runs the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution in Gaza City. "We are in one of the hardest events of political violence. But I don't think the parties will go down into civil war."

Analysts said the two sides would likely conclude that they risked losing too much in lives and public support if they kept up street fighting that neither seemed poised to win decisively.

"Both groups are armed, and both understand that both sides stand to lose," said George Giacaman, director of the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy in Ramallah, West Bank.

Still, all agree that the current circumstances appear more perilous than those that gave rise to earlier clashes. The power struggle has begun to assume the tones of a fight for existence, and no one is quite sure to what degree the political leaders can effectively control the gunmen.

In addition, the breakdown in political talks between Fatah and Hamas could send the message that there is no peaceful way around the political impasse.

"That's a dangerous recipe for civil war," said Samir Awad, chairman of the political science department at Birzeit University near Ramallah.

Ken Ellingwood and Rushdi abu Alouf write for the Los Angeles Times.

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