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Palestinian interior minister quits after fighting

The Palestinian interior minister stepped down Monday after six people were killed in an outbreak of factional fighting that has threatened the survival of the new Palestinian coalition government.
Palestinians inspect a burnt Fatah office after the clashes between Hamas and Fatah militants in Gaza
Palestinians inspect a burned-out Fatah office in the Gaza Strip on Monday after fighting between Hamas and Fatah turned deadly.Mohammed Salem / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Palestinian interior minister stepped down Monday after six people were killed in an outbreak of factional fighting that has threatened the survival of the new Palestinian coalition government.

The departure of Interior Minister Hani Kawasmeh was a major setback for the government, which was formed in March by the pragmatic Fatah party and the Islamic militant group Hamas to end months of factional violence.

The two sides had selected Kawasmeh as a compromise candidate for the sensitive interior ministry post, and his resignation highlighted the deep rifts that remain on security matters.

Kawasmeh threatened to resign two weeks ago to protest the violence and lawlessness plaguing Gaza. After earlier rejecting the resignation, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas accepted it on Monday.

“Ismael Haniyeh has accepted the resignation of the minister of the interior and this issue will be discussed today in the Cabinet meeting,” government spokesman Mustafa Barghouti said. Officials said Haniyeh would take control of the Interior Ministry until a replacement for Kawasmeh is found.

Two Fatah fighters slain in new clashes
In the latest fighting, Hamas and Fatah gunmen traded fire Monday, killing two Fatah fighters and wounding at least 10 people despite an Egyptian-brokered agreement to end the violence.

At midday, Hamas gunmen exchanged fire with security men at the headquarters of the pro-Fatah National Security force in Gaza City. Masked National Security men had taken up positions around the building shortly before the gunfire erupted.

Monday’s fighting came despite an Egyptian-mediated deal the previous night in which Hamas and Fatah agreed to withdraw forces and exchange captives.

In all, six people have been killed and 52 wounded since fighting broke out on Sunday, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. It is the most serious factional violence since the unity government was formed.

The unity deal, sealed in Saudi Arabia, was meant to bring an end to months of violence in Gaza. While fighting between Hamas and Fatah had largely slowed, the area remains plagued by deadly family feuds, crime gangs, kidnappings, carjackings and attacks on foreigners and Internet cafes.

Kawasmeh recently proposed a security plan to restore law and order in Gaza. But the plan — which called for reforms and coordination among the numerous Palestinian security forces — never got off the ground.

Center of the dispute
Control of the interior ministry has been at the heart of the dispute between Fatah and Hamas. The minister oversees several security forces.

President Mahmoud Abbas controls the other security forces, and his long-ruling Fatah party has been reluctant to yield any power — despite losing to Hamas in January 2006 parliamentary elections.

The new round of violence followed last week’s deployment of 3,000 police in Gaza from forces loyal to Abbas, over Hamas objections.

Amid the chaos inside Gaza, Palestinian militants also have continued to fire homemade rockets into southern Israel almost daily, openly violating a November truce agreement.

On Sunday, Israel’s Security Cabinet decided to hold off on a major military operation in Gaza. The decision came after talks over how to respond to the intensifying rocket fire and the army’s warnings that Hamas is stockpiling weapons smuggled into the strip.

Instead, the army was given permission to step up targeted attacks against those firing the rockets, said Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation.

“The decision to go into Gaza, to occupy Gaza is one that can be taken at any time but we have to understand its significance,” Peretz told Israel Radio.