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Israeli helicopter fires on strife-torn Gaza Strip

At least 16 Palestinians were killed in factional fighting in Gaza on Wednesday and Israel entered the fray with an airstrike on a Hamas position that killed at least four people.
A Palestinian security force officer loyal to the Fatah faction runs for cover during clashes with Hamas militants in Gaza City on Wednesday.
A Palestinian security force officer loyal to the Fatah faction runs for cover during clashes with Hamas militants in Gaza City on Wednesday.Khalil Hamra / AP
/ Source: news services

An Israeli helicopter launched missiles at a Hamas command center in the southern Gaza Strip on Wednesday, killing at least four people, after Hamas fired rocket barrages into Israel in an apparent attempt to draw it into the Palestinian infighting.

Israeli aircraft later attacked a car carrying a group of Hamas militants, Palestinian security officials said. The Israeli army was investigating the claim.

Meanwhile, Hamas gunmen fatally shot six guards from the rival Fatah movement and mistakenly ambushed a jeep carrying their own fighters, killing five. In all, 16 Palestinians were killed in Palestinian infighting Wednesday — the bloodiest day since violence broke out in the Gaza Strip four days ago.

The streets of central Gaza City echoed with gunfire and were empty except for gunmen in black ski masks. Terrified residents stayed home from school and work, huddling in dark homes after electricity to some neighborhoods was cut off by a downed power line.

Unity government in peril
In four days of fighting, 41 people have been killed and dozens more have been injured. Most of the dead have been from Fatah. The violence threatened to bring down the Palestinians’ two-month-old unity government — and brought the Palestinians dangerously close to all-out civil war.

Despite Israel’s vow to stay out of the fray, its missile strikes added another layer of complexity to Gaza’s mayhem, and raised the specter of a large-scale Israeli invasion.

“What is happening in Gaza endangers not only the unity government, but the Palestinian social fabric, the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian strategy as a whole,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Cease-fires haven’t stuck
Hamas announced Wednesday evening it would begin observing a unilateral cease-fire to stop the violence. Cease-fires were also announced on Monday and Tuesday, but neither held.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, was expected to meet with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas in Gaza on Thursday to discuss the situation, Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo said. One option was declaring a state of emergency, he said. Abbas also spoke by phone with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Syria on Wednesday, and the two agreed to work to end the violence.

Police from the Fatah-allied Preventive Security organization arrested five Hamas men and were driving them through Gaza City when the vehicle was ambushed by Hamas fighters, Preventive Security officials said. The five Hamas men were killed, along with two Fatah men, they said.

Hamas radio reported that a Hamas man was killed in a separate clash, and a nurse in an ambulance was shot in the head after being caught in the crossfire, hospital officials said. Her family said she was brain-dead and on a respirator.

Apartment building arson
In another incident, Hamas gunmen set fire to an 11-story apartment building housing Fatah lawmaker Nema Sheik Ali, the wife of the head of Preventive Security. Witnesses said the gunmen broke into her apartment and struck her and two of her children with their weapons. One of the children is 14 years old; the age of the other wasn’t immediately known.

“They came, they broke the door,” she said. “They assaulted my children and they pushed me aside, then they torched the apartment.”

Shadi al-Kashir, a building resident, said his father, wife, five children and two sisters had been trapped inside by smoke in the halls and gunbattles raging in the entranceway. “They tried to send ambulances, but the ambulances came under fire,” he said. They later managed to escape.

A group of about 200 Palestinians marched in central Gaza City, waving Palestinian flags and demanding an end to the fighting. Dozens of masked gunmen used the cover of the demonstration to improve their positions on the street, and then opened fire on the demonstrators, wounding one in the leg. The rest fled.

Hamas attacks Fatah chief's home
Earlier Wednesday, Hamas gunmen fired mortars and pipe bombs at the home of Fatah security chief Rashid Abu Shbak before storming it and killing six bodyguards, Palestinians security and medical officials said. Abu Shbak and his family were not home at the time.

Abdel Hakim Awad, a Fatah spokesman, angrily accused Hamas’ leadership of the attack, charging that the Islamist group “wanted to turn Gaza into a new Somalia or Darfur.”

Fighting also raged close to President Mahmoud Abbas’ heavily guarded compound, which was also targeted by Hamas mortar fire overnight, and the bodies of two Fatah gunmen were sprawled on the street nearby. Abbas, a moderate from Fatah, was not present.

Hamas officials said the organization’s men launched eight rockets at Israel, following a barrage of around 20 rockets Tuesday. That salvo at the Israeli town of Sderot, just outside Gaza, wounded five Israelis, one seriously, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

There were no casualties Wednesday, but school was canceled in Sderot and residents huddled in bomb shelters.

Luring Israel into a fight?
Hamas said its rockets were retaliation for Israeli violence, but more likely it was an attempt to draw Israel into the fighting as a way of uniting the Palestinians against a common foe.

Before Wednesday’s rocket attacks, Israel launched an airstrike at the Hamas military building in the southern town of Rafah, Palestinian officials and the army said. Medics said four Hamas gunmen were killed and 30 others were wounded. In a rare display of unity, Hamas and Fatah men worked together to evacuate the casualties.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert later summoned his Security Cabinet for urgent talks about the crisis, officials said. Before the meeting, Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said, “Israel is not going to be dragged into the Gaza Strip the way that Hamas wants. We will choose the time, the place to respond and we will protect our citizens.”

Gaza’s turmoil further weakened hopes for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, despite a new push by the Arab world to bring the sides to the table. The offer proposes Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from all lands it occupied in the 1967 Mideast War. But negotiations are inconceivable if the Palestinians descend into civil war.

This week’s fighting was the worst since Hamas and Fatah agreed in February to share power.

Unresolved power struggle
At its core is the unresolved power struggle between Hamas, which won parliament elections last year, and Fatah, which dominated Palestinian politics for four decades. After a year in power and squeezed by an international aid boycott, Hamas realized it could not govern alone and brought Fatah into the government. But the two sides never worked out all their differences, particularly over who would control security forces.

A senior Hamas official said the international community, Israel and Arab countries are to blame for the fighting by failing to lift an economic siege on the Palestinians.

“The international community and Arab countries shoulder part of the responsibility for the current events due to their attitudes toward the national unity government,” Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau, told The Associated Press by phone from Syria. “The continued financial and political siege has pushed matters to this simmering tension.”

The European Union issued a statement calling on “leaders on all sides to renounce the use of violence immediately, to restore the cease-fire and to resume their dialogue.” The EU also denounced the Palestinian rocket fire at Israel.