updated 7/19/2005 8:43:27 PM ET 2005-07-20T00:43:27

The ruling Fatah movement and the Islamic Hamas agreed early Wednesday to end armed clashes that have erupted in recent days, just as Israeli police were confronting their own opposition over Israel’s planned pullout from Gaza.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has been struggling to contain increasingly defiant Islamic militants, and in the recent clashes gunmen from his Fatah party confronted armed Hamas fighters. The result: offices torched by arsonists, wrecked cars and casualties on both sides.

Leaders of the two movements announced the accord after midnight in Gaza City. “We agreed to withdraw all armed forces from the streets of northern Gaza,” said Mizar Rayyan, a local Hamas leader.

The tension is related to Palestinian rocket and mortar barrages against Israeli settlements in Gaza and towns just outside the territory, a month before Israel’s scheduled pullout. Abbas wants to coordinate the pullout with Israel, while the militants prefer to step up attacks and claim credit for driving the Israelis out by force.

From negotiations to force
Fatah unofficially asked its affiliated militant group, the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, to help fight Hamas as Abbas seeks to ensure a smooth Israeli pullout from Gaza settlements, Fatah and Al Aqsa members said.

Abbas told foreign reporters in Gaza on Monday that he still preferred negotiations to temper militants’ behavior, but he has recently begun using force, keenly aware of Hamas’ growing power after it won a series of regional elections.

Israel and the Palestinians are each trying curb their own extremists ahead of the pullout. About 12 miles away in Israel, police surrounded a farming village where several thousand Israeli opponents of the Gaza pullout were camping out for a second night, hoping to march on Gaza and reinforce settlers who plan to resist evacuation.

Police declared the gathering illegal but made no move to break it up. They insisted, however, that they would not allow the protesters into Gaza itself.

The Palestinian infighting came after six Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks last week, including an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in the seaside city of Netanya. Israeli troops massed outside Gaza over the weekend, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he had given the army a free hand to halt Palestinian mortar and rocket fire.

The rhetoric cooled Monday, when Israeli and Palestinian leaders said they would try to stop the escalation.

Conflicts reignite
But the internal Gaza conflicts flared again Tuesday when the offices of two Hamas-affiliated research companies were burned down, residents said. Separately, a gunbattle broke out after a Palestinian police patrol traveling near a Hamas stronghold refused to stop at a makeshift Hamas roadblock.

The Palestinian Authority said nine police officers were wounded, and three cars were hit with grenades.

A Hamas militant, speaking on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals, said Palestinian police opened fire on Hamas positions for no reason. During the clashes several cars were torched, witnesses said.

At the news conference announcing the accord, Palestinian Cabinet minister Sufian Abu Zaydeh of Fatah said differences with Hamas “have been put behind us.” Both sides pledged to negotiate over future disagreements instead of resorting to force.

Hamas is running in parliamentary elections for the first time after doing well in local voting. But the Islamic movement shows no signs of giving up its armed struggle against Israel and poses a significant threat to Abbas.

Senior members of both Fatah and Al Aqsa in the West Bank said Abbas has enlisted the help of Al Aqsa in his fight against Hamas. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the move is not official Palestinian Authority policy.

This development could be problematic because Abbas is also under pressure to dismantle Al Aqsa. Though loosely affiliated with Fatah, Al Aqsa has also posed a threat to Abbas’ authority, remaining armed and sometimes clashing with Palestinian police.

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