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Palestinian PM wins pact to end internal strife

Militants tied to Hamas and Fatah have agreed to end the internal violence plaguing Gaza, the Palestinian prime minister said Wednesday, after two days of street fighting and gun fights between the rival groups.
Masked militants of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a group linked to the Fatah movement, patrol an area around one of their offices after clashes with Hamas militants in Gaza City on Tuesday.
Masked militants of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a group linked to the Fatah movement, patrol an area around one of their offices after clashes with Hamas militants in Gaza City on Tuesday.Khalil Hamra / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Militants linked to Hamas and Fatah have agreed to work together to end the internal violence that has plagued Gaza, the Palestinian prime minister said Wednesday, after two days of gunbattles between the rival groups.

Nine Palestinians, including five children on their way to school, were wounded in a gunfight in Gaza City. Each side blamed the other for triggering it.

Then, Hamas militants attacked the funeral procession in southern Gaza for a Fatah gunman killed Monday, setting off two bombs and opening fire. Fatah gunmen dropped to the ground and returned fire. Three bystanders were wounded, hospital officials said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh summoned Hamas and Fatah leaders to his Gaza City office for talks that ended early Wednesday. Haniyeh, flanked by Fatah activists, told reporters after midnight Wednesday that the two sides agreed to put a stop to the violent clashes.

‘Dialogue is the only language’
Haniyeh said they agreed that “dialogue is the only language to solve our differences.” Ahmed Helas, a Fatah leader, read a joint statement with a pledge to work out problems peacefully and expel any member who uses weapons illegally.

The fighting broke out hours before the United States agreed to support a new program to temporarily funnel additional humanitarian aid directly to the Palestinian people. A statement by Mideast peacemakers did not say how much or what kind of aid they would provide.

“The thrust of this is the international community is still trying to respond to the needs of the Palestinian people,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

The United States and some allies in Europe and elsewhere have differed over tactics to counter Hamas because of its violent anti-Israel ideology without worsening the Palestinians’ humanitarian plight.

The European Union has proposed sending money directly to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for humanitarian needs; the U.S. has been cool to the European proposal.

Running gunbattles
In the Gaza City clash, Fatah said Hamas gunmen opened fire from a car at seven bodyguards protecting a house where a top Fatah activist, Samir Masharawi, was staying. Fatah said at least one Hamas gunman was wounded.

Dozens of Hamas and Fatah gunmen streamed to the scene, and eight more people were wounded in the gunbattles that followed, including five children, Fatah said.

Hamas said Masharawi’s bodyguards kidnapped three members of Hamas’ military wing earlier Tuesday, and Hamas gunmen came to free them. The outbreaks of fighting have been preceded by kidnapping charges, but there has been no actual evidence of abductions.

Hamas and Fatah have been in a power struggle since Hamas won January parliamentary elections. Most members of the security forces are loyal to Fatah, and instead of trying to disarm them, Hamas has set up its own militia.

Both sides are training for escalating clashes, but so far the violence has been localized and on a small scale. Despite deep disagreements, Palestinians have pulled back from the brink of all-out conflict in the past.

Tensions remain high
But the economic crisis is fraying nerves on all sides.

Severe shortages of medicines and inability to pay public workers are already plaguing Palestinians five weeks after Hamas took over, showing how quickly hardships have turned into deprivation because of the Western aid cutoff and Israel’s decision to withhold $55 million it collects in taxes each month for the Palestinians.

The official reason for withholding funds has been to prevent them from reaching Hamas, which has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel over the past decade, killing hundreds. Hamas Muslim ideology does not accept a Jewish state in the Middle East, and the group has rebuffed Israeli and international demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian partial peace accords.

Many hope the economic crisis will turn the people against Hamas. So far, however, there is no sign of that, beyond small demonstrations sponsored by Fatah.  

Hamas firm on its principles
At a rally in Gaza, Haniyeh of Hamas called for an end to the sanctions, but added defiantly, “We are not going to surrender, cave in to this siege, compromise the rights of our people or recognize the legitimacy of the occupiers on our land (Israel).”

Abbas, who is also the Fatah leader, appealed to Western powers to free up the funds for his people.

“Our main goal at this time is ... to end the economic siege of the Palestinian people,” Abbas said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Also Tuesday, the Israeli military said it foiled an attempt last week to smuggle 1,100 pounds of TNT to the Gaza Strip from Egypt by boat. Sailors saw 11 bags thrown overboard as the boat escaped. Divers found the explosives, the military said.