Palestinian forces stormed a Hamas hideout in the northern West Bank, setting off a fierce battle that left six dead Sunday in the bloodiest factional violence since the Palestinian president launched a crackdown on the Islamic militant group two years ago.
Hamas militants lobbed grenades and fired automatic weapons to push back the raid, drawing dozens of government forces to the scene. After the battle, hundreds of spent bullet casings, puddles of blood and tear gas canisters were visible at the hideout, a two-story building in Qalqiliya, a West Bank town known for its strong Hamas presence. Parts of the walls were burned down.
Two top Hamas militants who had been on the run from Israel for years were among those killed, along with an unarmed Hamas supporter and three Palestinian policemen.
Hamas immediately hurled angry accusations at the Western-backed president, Mahmoud Abbas, threatening revenge and accusing him of betraying Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation. Relations have been sour since Hamas seized Gaza by force two years ago, leaving Abbas only in control of the West Bank.
Trying to rein in militants
The arrest raid underscored Abbas' determination to rein in militants as part of his obligations under the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
Last week, Abbas met at the White House with President Barack Obama and renewed a pledge to honor these commitments. The U.S. has been training Abbas' elite forces to help him affirm his control of the West Bank and prepare for eventual statehood. Many of the security men involved in the shootout had undergone U.S.-supervised training in Jordan, police said.
Despite Hamas' threats of reprisals, it was not immediately clear whether it would change its tactic of lying low in the West Bank while it weathers Abbas' crackdown. Since Hamas' Gaza takeover, Abbas' security forces have detained hundreds of Hamas supporters in the West Bank and closed the group's institutions and charities.
The Qalqiliya clash began late Saturday when Palestinian troops surrounded a hideout of Mohammed Samman, a leader of Hamas' military wing, and his assistant, Mohammed Yassin. Both had been on Israel's wanted list for six years, Palestinian security officials said.
Initially, about two dozen officers stormed the house, breaking down the door, said a policeman who participated in the raid. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. The Hamas men lobbed a grenade and opened automatic fire, killing three officers and wounding two critically, he said. Other officers fled, then brought in reinforcements.
Bombs, suicide belts found in house
The ensuing battle lasted until midmorning Sunday. Police say they found bombs, suicide belts and bullets in their search of the house.
Qalqiliya, which elected a Hamas mayor in 2005, was tense Sunday. Women gathered near the scene heaped insults on policemen. Sporadic gunfire erupted in other areas of town, and police said the shots came from Hamas loyalists targeting officers, though there were no reports of injuries.
Security officials seized the bodies of the Hamas militants, fearing a public burial would turn into angry protests against the Palestinian Authority. Muslim tradition demands the dead should be buried quickly.
Hamas officials in the West Bank said that some 40 loyalists of the group had been arrested in Qalqiliya in the past week as part of the search for the top two fugitives. Some 200 Hamas supporters are in Palestinian Authority custody.
In Gaza, Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the Hamas military wing, threatened "tough and harsh reprisal."
But Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdeneh said going after militants is key to one day setting up a Palestinian state. "To build our country and our state, we need to have one authority, one gun, one law," he said.
U.S. pressure on settlements
As the U.S. tries to restart peace efforts, Washington has stepped up its calls on Israel to halt all settlement construction in the West Bank — captured territory the Palestinians claim as part of their future state. The U.S. pressure has created increasing friction with Israel.
An Israeli Cabinet minister close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the latest voice to reject the American demands.
"I want to say in the most clear way possible: This Israeli government will never agree to freeze and starve the legal Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria," Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told Army Radio, using the term used by some Israelis for the West Bank.
Katz said it was "worrisome" that the U.S. administration had not reaffirmed understandings reached between former President George W. Bush and the Israeli government.
Those understandings, expressed in a 2005 letter from Bush, gave American support for Israel's continued control over major settlements under a final peace accord.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was set to leave Sunday for Washington for meetings with U.S. officials. Barak hopes to secure U.S. approval for limited construction in the settlements, officials said.
There was no immediate Israeli reaction to Sunday's crackdown in the West Bank.