Hamas on Tuesday moved swiftly against its Fatah rivals in Gaza following a massive rally that ended in bloodshed, arresting 400 people in an overnight crackdown and promising “additional steps” against its bitter enemy.
The threat deepened tensions between the Palestinian rivals ahead of a U.S.-sponsored peace conference later this month and appeared to set the stage for Hamas to take even tougher action against Fatah.
The latest arrests followed Monday’s huge rally by Fatah. Billed as a memorial for legendary Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the event drew an estimated 250,000 people, making it Fatah’s biggest show of force since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June.
The event began peacefully, but quickly descended into mayhem and violence, with seven Fatah supporters — all civilians — killed and 85 people wounded as Hamas men opened fire on protesters.
Hazem Abu Shanab, a Fatah spokesman in Gaza, said the detainees included dozens of organizers of the rally’s organizers.
Hamas blames Fatah for bloodshed
Gaza City was quiet and tense Tuesday. Schools were closed in mourning, and most stores in downtown Gaza were shuttered. Hamas police stayed off the streets early Tuesday, but were back at their positions by the end of the day.
Hamas officials blamed Fatah for provoking the violence.
Taher Nunu, a Hamas spokesman, said “some elements in the rally created an atmosphere of chaos.” He also said speeches “were full of incitement against the government.”
Gaza’s Hamas government met to discuss the violence, he said. “The government will reconsider its policy toward Fatah and will take additional steps to protect the political and national and media movements in the streets of Gaza,” he said.
He declined to elaborate, saying the government was still deciding what steps to take. But the threat appeared to signal even tougher steps ahead.
Since routing Fatah forces and taking control of Gaza, Hamas has ruled the area with an iron grip. It has banned virtually all Fatah activities, tortured Fatah supporters, closed pro-Fatah media and charities and broken up attempts by Fatah to hold organized prayers. Two Fatah supporters have been tortured to death, according to human rights groups.
Abbas: Hamas crackdown a 'heinous crime'
Fatah kept a low profile in Gaza on Tuesday. A series of funerals for people killed at Monday’s rally proceeded without violence, although mourners shouted anti-Hamas epithets at one service.
“Death to Shiites! Death to the criminals!” the crowd chanted. Fatah supporters often call Hamas “Shiites,” a derogatory reference to the group’s close ties with Iran’s radical government. Some mourners carried pictures of Arafat, Fatah’s founder, or yellow Fatah flags.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has ruled from the West Bank since losing control of Gaza, declared three days of mourning. He ordered Palestinian flags to fly at half-staff, condemning the Hamas crackdown as a “heinous crime.”
Surprising show of strength
Waving Palestinian flags and Fatah banners, thousands of Abbas supporters demonstrated in cities across the West Bank. About 10,000 Fatah supporters marched in Nablus, while smaller rallies took place in Ramallah and Bethlehem.
Fatah’s unexpected show of strength Monday came as Abbas prepares for new peace talks with Israel, starting with a U.S.-hosted Mideast conference in Maryland later this month, and tries to fend off Hamas claims that he does not have a mandate to negotiate.
A growing number of Palestinians appear to be rallying behind Abbas. A poll this week showed that 40 percent of Palestinians trust Fatah, compared with only 20 percent who say they trust Hamas.
The survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, an independent Palestinian research agency, questioned 1,200 people in the West Bank and Gaza and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Fatah’s former Gaza strongman, Mohammed Dahlan, said Hamas’ harsh response Monday was a sign its grip on Gaza is weakening. “What is happening in Gaza today is the beginning of the end of Hamas on the popular, religious and moral level,” he told Palestine TV. “There will be victory against the killers soon.”
Slow progress on summit preparations
The Palestinians and Israel are trying to cobble together a blueprint for peace talks that would be presented at the conference. But the summit preparations have made little progress.
On Tuesday, Palestinian negotiators accused Israel of trying to sabotage the conference by making last-minute demands they cannot accept.
“What is being done now is not in good faith,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a close aide to Abbas.
A major sticking point has been Israel’s abrupt demand that the blueprint call on the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
The Palestinians say they recognize Israel’s right to exist, but that the language Israel is seeking would force the Palestinians to drop one of their key demands: to repatriate Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes after Israel’s creation in 1948.
“This is absolutely refused,” lead Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia said. “There is a solution of two states living side by side.”
Israel rejects any large-scale return of refugees, saying it would mean the end of Israel’s Jewish majority.