Image: Fatah fighters
Uriel Sinai  /  Getty Images
Fatah fighters who fled from Hamas gunmen in the Gaza Strip during the night are detained at an Israeli army base on Sunday. 
updated 8/3/2008 10:12:21 AM ET 2008-08-03T14:12:21

More than 180 Fatah supporters who fled into Israel from the Gaza Strip were in Israeli custody Sunday, after a dramatic escape from a Hamas crackdown that left nine people dead in fierce fighting.

Wary Israeli troops allowed the Gazans to cross the heavily guarded border on Saturday, stripping them first to make sure none was wearing explosives. Mortar shells hit near the crossing as the Palestinians fled their homes for the territory of their longtime enemy. The Israeli soldiers prepared stretchers and ambulances rushed the badly wounded to nearby hospitals.

The incident began Saturday when Hamas forces launched a raid on a crowded Gaza City neighborhood dominated by the Hilles clan, linked to Fatah. The sides battled each other with mortars and machine guns. Three Hamas men were killed, along with six Fatah supporters, and nearly 90 were wounded in what was one of Gaza's bloodiest rounds of internal fighting since Hamas seized the territory more than a year ago.

Mysterious explosion
The Hamas raid was part of an intensifying weeklong crackdown sparked by a mysterious explosion on July 25 that killed five Hamas men and a 6-year old girl. Hamas blamed Fatah and began rounding up the rival group's members. Fatah denied the charge and launched a retaliatory crackdown against Hamas in the West Bank.

Hamas alleged that the Hilles clan was hiding those who perpetrated the attack. The Islamic group's forces prevailed after heavy fighting in the neighborhood's streets, and many of the clan's men fled in the direction of the border fence.

The moderate Palestinian president, Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, and the Egyptian government contacted Israel and asked to let them through, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak agreed, according to Israeli military officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the request was not officially made public.

When Israeli soldiers went to open the gate, heavy fire erupted, apparently from Hamas forces, said Col. Ron Ashrov, an Israeli military commander in the border area. Twenty-two of those who crossed were injured, he said.

The incident punctuated one of the new realities of the conflict: Palestinian infighting has become so bitter that some Palestinians fear Israel less than they do each other.

Haim Ramon, Israel's vice premier, said Sunday that Israel has a responsibility to help supporters of Abbas, who is negotiating a peace deal with Israel.

"We have to decide on one central and basic position, and that is that we cooperate and want to help the pragmatic forces among the Palestinians, those who want to negotiate with us and who are fighting the radical Islam of Hamas, those who oppose terrorism," Ramon told Army Radio.

Danger of embroiling Israel
The Gazans' final destination was not immediately clear. Officials close to Abbas said most would be sent to Egypt, while Ramon said they would be allowed to move to Ramallah, the seat of Abbas' government.

Four mortar shells fired from Gaza landed in Israel on Saturday, the military said, violating a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza militants. The shells caused no injuries but underscored the danger that the Palestinian infighting could embroil Israel.

Fatah and Hamas have engaged in a bitter and often violent rivalry for several years, culminating in Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza one year ago. Fatah's power in Gaza was largely erased and it was left in control only of the West Bank, where Abbas rules with a Western-backed government.

Both groups have periodically carried out arrest sweeps targeting rivals in the territories they control.

On Saturday, their opponents routed, Hamas men went from house to house in the clan's neighborhood, seizing suspects and weapons. Hamas said more than 50 people were arrested, including some who tried to flee disguised as women.

"We are sending a message that no one is above the law and that no family is above the law. Gaza will enjoy peace and security," senior Hamas official Siyad Siam said.

In the West Bank, forces loyal to Abbas ratcheted up their own crackdown over the weekend. On Saturday, Abbas' men enforced a new ban on public assembly and expanded their arrest sweep beyond Hamas.

Club-wielding security men arrested dozens of supporters of a nonviolent Islamic group, the Liberation Party, and broke up their rally in downtown Ramallah. An APTN cameraman was prevented by Abbas' security forces from filming the beatings.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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