Hamas security forces opened fire Monday at a rally by the rival Fatah movement commemorating Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Five people were killed in the bloodiest day of intra-Palestinian fighting since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.
Some 250,000 Fatah supporters joined Monday’s rally in a major square of Gaza City, carrying pictures of Arafat, yellow Fatah flags and wearing trademark black-and-white Arab headdresses.
The crowd scattered as masked Hamas security men ran through the city streets, firing weapons. Two hours later, hundreds of Hamas gunmen controlled the protest site and were arresting protesters as they tried to flee.
An eyewitness, identifying himself as Abu Samir, said Hamas security men appeared to fire unprovoked. “I saw brutality. I saw gunmen shoot at people. I saw them catch a boy and beat him with a stick,” he said.
Hamas blames Fatah for incitement
At least 60 people were wounded, medical officials and Fatah said.
Hamas officials accused Fatah of provoking the violence. Since taking over Gaza, Hamas has rounded up Fatah supporters, confiscated weapons and barred many large public gatherings.
“Before the rally, Fatah militants were deployed throughout the area,” said Ehab Ghussen, spokesman for the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry. “Fatah is responsible for continued incitement against the Palestinian police, and there was a clear attempt to bring back chaos.”
Hamas said Fatah gunmen took positions on the rooftop of a building near the rally site. No Fatah gunmen were visible on the streets during the clashes, though a handful of Fatah militiamen were earlier turned away from the rally by organizers.
Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads the rival Fatah government out of the West Bank, has been trying to isolate Hamas as he moves to relaunch peace talks with Israel at the U.S.-hosted Middle East conference.
Arafat, Fatah’s founder, is still widely loved by Palestinians of all political beliefs and Abbas has been using the third anniversary of his death to rally support on the streets.
Olmert in goodwill gesture
In a gesture of support for Abbas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert disclosed plans Monday to release more than 400 Palestinian prisoners in a goodwill gesture before the peace conference, Israeli lawmakers said.
Olmert told parliament’s influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel would release more than 400 Palestinian prisoners ahead of the summit, according to lawmakers Yossi Beilin and Yuval Steinitz. Palestinian officials put the number of Palestinians in Israeli jails at 12,000. But government statistics show Israel is holding around 8,700 Palestinians on security charges ranging from armed attacks to throwing stones, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said.
Because so many Palestinian families have relatives held in Israeli jails, prisoner releases are a charged issue in Palestinian society, and releases are considered a confidence-building measure.
The Annapolis meeting is meant to formally relaunch peace talks, which broke down in violence nearly seven years ago.
“It’s a meeting meant to give an opportunity to jumpstart the peace process between us and the Palestinians, a process we are interested in advancing seriously and consistently. We intend to reach understandings, as soon as possible,” he later told lawmakers from his Kadima Party.