Fighting in Gaza Strip imperils new cease-fire

JERUSALEM -- New clashes broke out late yesterday between the main Palestinian political groups, Fatah and Hamas, despite a tentative cease-fire that brought less than a day of relative calm to the Gaza Strip.

Gunmen killed a Fatah activist and wounded three others last night, one of several shootouts between the rival groups in northern Gaza that also left at least seven other people injured.


Fatah also charged that Hamas militants had attacked one of its charities, and each group accused the other of abducting its members. Sufian Abu Zaydeh, a former Cabinet minister from Fatah, was briefly held by Hamas gunmen and later freed unharmed in return for a promise to release a Hamas activist.

The outbreaks threatened to shatter a truce forged after factional violence a day earlier killed three people and seemed to confirm fears that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' call for new elections could ignite wider civil conflict.


Yesterday, Abbas, who belongs to Fatah, said the climate remained "dangerous." But he insisted he would proceed with early presidential and parliamentary elections next year if the two sides remain deadlocked over formation of a government to replace the one run by Hamas.

"The people cannot go on for long. The people are suffering," Abbas told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

At a joint news conference, Abbas and Blair urged the international community to redouble efforts to promote a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement.

Blair, describing the coming weeks as crucial for the Palestinians, praised Abbas' call for early elections as a way to get around the factional standoff and end a months-long international aid embargo against the Hamas-led government.

"We want to work with people of moderation and tolerance," Blair said.

The British prime minister called for fresh international efforts to support Abbas, a relative moderate, and to ease the economic plight of Palestinians, beset by the aid cutoff.

Blair said he hoped an initiative would emerge in coming weeks aimed at reviving a peace process that has been dormant since soon after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in September 2000. An Abbas aide said the discussion between the two leaders did not delve into specifics.

Hamas accused Blair of interfering in internal Palestinian matters, highlighting the political risk to Abbas of being characterized by foes as a tool of the West and Israel.


Ahmed Yousef, a top adviser to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, called for new talks on a possible ruling coalition that would avert elections, which Hamas views as illegal.

Abbas again left the door open to a possible agreement on forming a government that would be acceptable to the West and bring an end to the crippling aid cutoff. He said that was the best way out of the current deadlock.

The United States and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group and halted aid after it defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections in January. The West has demanded that the Palestinian government recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements in order for aid to resume.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.