Fatah forces strike Hamas in West Bank

Gunmen storm parliament after Islamists' success in Gaza Strip

June 17, 2007|By Maher Abukhater and Ken Ellingwood | Maher Abukhater and Ken Ellingwood,Los Angeles Times

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Fatah gunmen took aim at Hamas rivals in the West Bank yesterday, storming the Hamas-led parliament and ransacking offices of the Islamist group amid fears that last week's fighting in the Gaza Strip could trigger a wider reprisal campaign here.

No deaths were reported during a series of incidents around the West Bank, which came despite Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to rein in militants affiliated with his Fatah party. Fatah still holds sway in the West Bank, but its forces were overpowered in the Gaza fighting, leaving Hamas in sole control of the seaside strip of land.

Palestinian officials said preventing outbreaks of Gaza-style violence will be the priority of an emergency Cabinet that will be named in the next day or so. Four days of clashes between armed camps in Gaza killed at least 90 people and deepened worries about the possibility of civil war.

"We have told the security forces to quell any attempt to attack people or offices, regardless of their affiliation, and to use force if necessary," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, an Abbas ally who is secretary of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The new Cabinet, whose authority might effectively be limited to the West Bank, will exclude Hamas. It will be led by Salam Fayyad, a moderate lawmaker and former finance minister who is respected by the U.S. and Israel.

On Thursday, after Hamas finished its rout in Gaza, Abbas declared a state of emergency and fired Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. But Hamas insists that Haniyeh is still head of the Palestinian government, thus creating competing authorities and deepening the divide between the West Bank and Gaza.

Many Palestinians fear that the violence might erase the chance of merging the two areas, which are separated by Israel, into a future state. The split, however, could make it easier for the United States and other Western nations to restore aid to a Palestinian government without Hamas, which calls for Israel's destruction. The U.S. and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group and cut off aid after it won parliamentary elections last year.

The U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, Jacob Walles, met with Abbas yesterday and indicated that he expected the U.S. would renew aid soon after the new Palestinian government is formed.

Factional violence in the West Bank has been limited in scope and severity, even though Fatah's militias have a huge advantage over Hamas in the number of fighters and weapons. But Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades linked to Fatah are loosely organized and prone to acting on their own, making it more difficult to prevent assaults against Hamas.

During previous rounds of fighting, whenever Hamas delivered a blow in Gaza, Fatah retaliated in the West Bank. Its gunmen abducted Hamas activists or shot at the parliament building and headquarters of the Cabinet, until last week led by Hamas.

In the West Bank yesterday, Fatah gunmen stormed the parliament building in Ramallah and accosted lawmaker Hassan Khreisheh, an independent endorsed by Hamas. Khreisheh, who holds the position of second deputy speaker in parliament, said that he believed the men planned to abduct him but that Fatah leaders intervened and the attackers left.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, Fatah gunmen set fire to Hamas-affiliated offices in Nablus and raided the municipality building, hoisting the Fatah flag. They instructed employees from Hamas not to return and said they would name a committee to run the municipality. There were also reports that seven Hamas activists were abducted in Nablus.

In Al Eizariyeh, near Jerusalem, dozens of men raided the offices of an Islamic trust and kicked out employees. In Bethlehem, attackers set fire to the bookstore of a Hamas member of the City Council and ransacked his home.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, called the West Bank attacks "a real coup and real terrorism."

"We will take all steps to secure an end to these crimes," he said.

In other developments, Avi Dichter, Israel's public security minister, said the Israeli government would allow the passage of food and other basic items into Gaza to prevent a humanitarian crisis.

Israel refuses to deal with Hamas, raising practical questions about how it would manage border crossings with Gaza, now closed, with the Islamist group solely in charge.

Maher Abukhater and Ken Ellingwood write for the Los Angeles Times.

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