Hamas kills seven at Fatah rally
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The Hamas-Fatah battle line was drawn across a Gaza City intersection.From one side of the street, hundreds of young Fatah supporters, some draped in their movement’s yellow flag, showered Hamas policemen with rocks.From the Hamas side came bursts of automatic fire. One policeman even dropped to one knee for better aim.Undeterred, the stone-throwers surged forward again and again. One man fell to the ground, was carried off by bystanders, but others kept going.In all, seven civilians were killed and were 85 wounded, medical officials said.Monday’s confrontation between the rival Palestinian factions erupted at the end of a Fatah rally drawing more than 250,000 people, the biggest challenge to Hamas rule in Gaza since the Islamic militants seized control of the impoverished territory by force in June. The images of Hamas policemen facing off against large groups of rock-throwers challenged Hamas’ claim that it has established tight control over Gaza.Fatah’s unexpected show of strength was also its most persuasive argument that its leader, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has a mandate to renew peacemaking with Israel at a U.S.-hosted Mideast conference in Maryland later this month.The march started out peacefully after Palestinians in buses, on foot and on donkey carts streamed into a large sandy lot by the Mediterranean to mark the Nov. 11, 2004 death of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.Waving yellow Fatah flags, the crowd cheered and whistled as the movement’s remaining leaders in Gaza – most had fled to the West Bank in June – delivered hopeful speeches about a comeback.Downward spiralBut the rally quickly descended into chaos and bursts of gunfire as the crowd was beginning to leave. Fatah stone-throwers clashed with armed Hamas policemen.”It was a big mess, and everyone was running for cover,” said a wounded 24-year-old demonstrator who would give only his first name, Farouk, for fear of repercussions by Hamas. While he lay on the ground waiting for help, he said he saw a man in a wheelchair trying to hide near a wall.In one confrontation, an Associated Press reporter observed about 30 Hamas policemen – some posted on the rooftop of a government ministry, others on the streets below – firing heavily for about 10 minutes. Some appeared to be shooting over the heads of Fatah stone-throwers while others were firing randomly.In another, AP Television News footage showed hundreds of young Fatah activists, some wrapped in yellow flags, facing off against Hamas police in black or blue-camouflage uniforms across an intersection.The Fatah supporters pelted Hamas troops with stones, surging forward even as they were met by heavy bursts of gunfire. One Hamas policeman dropped to one knee for better aim. At one point, a young stone-thrower collapsed and was carried off by others.Elsewhere, AP photographers observed frantic demonstrators commandeering private cars to take the wounded to hospitals.Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri held Fatah responsible for the violence, saying Fatah gunmen had been posted on high-rise buildings overlooking the rally to shoot at Hamas police officers as a planned provocation.Hamas said five of its policemen were wounded by sniper fire from the roof of the pro-Fatah Al Azhar University near the rally.”If Hamas was planning today’s incidents, why would we have allowed the rally to take place?” Abu Zuhri told a news conference.Fatah denied the charge, saying no armed men were allowed at the rally. An AP reporter saw 10 Fatah gunmen being turned away at the start of the rally. Medical officials said none of the dead was a Hamas policeman.After nightfall, Hamas forces arrested 27 Fatah activists involved in planning the rally, Fatah officials said. They also confiscated computers and documents from a Fatah media office.Tens of thousands of Fatah supporters still draw a monthly salary from Abbas’ West Bank government, ensuring loyalty under Hamas rule.Fatah claimed that 500,000 people attended the rally. An AP reporter at the scene estimated half that.Either way, the rally was a boost for Abbas as he prepares for new peace talks with Israel and tries to fend off Hamas’ claims that he does not have a mandate to negotiate.In a gesture of support for Abbas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert disclosed plans Monday to release more than 400 Palestinian prisoners before the Maryland peace conference. Israel is holding nearly 9,000 Palestinians, and Palestinians have asked for 2,000 to be freed before the meeting.Also Monday, Israel’s Shin Bet security service said it would grant amnesty to additional Fatah gunmen in the West Bank, after declaring its first amnesties of about 100 militants a success. “Many have turned away from terrorism,” the security agency said in a statement.Abbas said Hamas militants committed a “heinous crime” Monday. He ordered three days of mourning for the dead and wounded, with Palestinian flags to fly at half-staff.Fatah’s former Gaza strongman, Mohammed Dahlan, said Hamas’ harsh response is a sign its grip on Gaza is weakening. “What is happening in Gaza today is the beginning of the end of Hamas on the popular, religious and moral level,” he told Palestine TV. “There will be victory against the killers soon.”Hamas said Monday’s events were an attempt to exploit Arafat’s memory in order to “cause chaos and confront Hamas.”The rally marked the third day of memorials for Arafat, who in death remains the most popular Palestinian politician; even Hamas has tried to co-opt him, portraying him as a leader who stood up to Israel.Former policeman Wasfi Ramadan, 42, who attended Monday’s rally with his 14-year-old daughter Salwa and 9-year-old son Yasser, said the rally marked the first time since June that he dared to show his support for Fatah.”I felt that the spirit of Yasser Arafat … is calling us to rise up and come out,” he said.The atmosphere in the square was calm at first. An AP reporter observed some of the Hamas policemen wearing black-and-white checkered headbands in a tribute to Arafat. The policemen did not respond when some marchers taunted them with chants of “Shiites, Shiites,” mocking Hamas’ close ties to Iran, ruled by Shiite Muslims.After the first shots rang out, bodyguards for a senior Fatah official, Ahmed Hiles, grabbed their boss, bundled him in a car, draped themselves over the vehicle for cover and sped off. Two of the guards are known to carry pistols, but an AP reporter did not see them being used.Farouk, the 24-year-old demonstrator, said he was shot in the leg while he was walking away from the rally.”I felt something hot hitting my leg. I fell down and started screaming when I saw blood,” Farouk said. “After a few minutes, a group of young guys helped me get into a car, and I was taken to a hospital.”An AP reporter saw a Hamas policeman get hit in the head by a stone. A colleague took him away. A few Hamas policemen stood on a nearby balcony and fired in the air after being pelted with stones and bottles. Vans arrived with Hamas reinforcements.Hamas said a Fatah mob trashed a nearby government office, breaking windows and attacking employees.As the clashes died down, an AP reporter saw Hamas security searching trunks of cars and taking away several people in police Jeeps. By nightfall, Hamas had pulled most of its security forces off the streets.In an echo of the rally’s violence, clashes erupted later Monday during the funeral for one of the victims, Ayoub Abu Samra, 19, who witnesses said had been shot and killed after getting into a scuffle with a Hamas policeman.Mourners fired in the air and said Hamas police fired at the procession. Hamas police denied opening fire and said the marchers threw stones at them.Rescue workers said three people were hurt, one by gunfire and two by beatings.
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