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Palestinian factions clash at Gaza rally, leaving 6 dead

The Baltimore Sun

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- At least six Palestinians were killed and more than a hundred wounded yesterday when a mass rally marking the third anniversary of the death of Yasser Arafat, the longtime Palestinian leader, ended in armed clashes between the rival factions of Hamas and Fatah.

All of the dead and most of the wounded were Fatah supporters who had been taking part in the rally, according to doctors at two Gaza hospitals.

Tens of thousands of Gaza residents had turned out to honor Arafat, the founder of the Fatah movement, in the largest show of support for the mainstream Palestinian organization since the Islamic group Hamas seized control of the territory last June.

Fatah officials estimated that more than 250,000 people attended the rally; the total population of Gaza is about 1.5 million.

Hamas and Fatah accused each other of starting the violence. A spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza, Ehab al-Ghsein, said that Fatah gunmen stationed on city rooftops first opened fire at members of the Hamas police force, injuring four. Fatah supporters also started throwing stones at police, he said.

The Hamas takeover of Gaza earlier this year was preceded by bloody factional fighting. Since Hamas routed the Fatah forces, it has tried to impose order and to subdue public displays of support for Fatah.

Hamas did not attempt to prevent yesterday's rally from taking place, in deference to the popularity of Arafat, who is viewed by many Palestinians as a symbol of national unity.

But Ghsein accused Fatah of trying to reignite internal strife.

"There are those who aim to bring lawlessness back to the Gaza Strip," he said.

Hazem Abu Shanab, a Fatah leader in Gaza, rejected the Hamas version of events as nonsense.

"The shooting came from one side only, toward civilians who came out to support Fatah," he said.

The rally had begun peacefully, with many women and children in the crowd, but the mutual hostility between the rival camps of Hamas and Fatah was palpable from the start.

Hamas policemen took up positions on the roofs of the highest buildings, and the group's members mingled among the crowd in civilian clothes.

Hamas police officers confiscated Fatah flags and posters of Arafat from the cars of Fatah supporters. Meanwhile, rally participants shouted harsh slogans against the Islamic group, including "Shia, Shia," in reference to the support that Hamas gets from Iran. The vast majority of Palestinians are Sunni Muslims.

The shooting erupted when the rally was almost over and lasted for an hour and a half.

Fawziya Abu Karish came to the rally with her 11-year-old daughter Amira.

"I hadn't wanted to come," she said, but her brother, who was injured in the June fighting, called her from Egypt and begged her "to go out in support of Fatah," she said. Amira said a man standing next to her had been shot in the legs.

At Gaza's Shifa Hospital, Afaf Abu Tayeh, 45, was waiting by the morgue. She had come to look for two of her sons, ages 16 and 17.

"The Israelis were more merciful than them," she said of Hamas. "They beat children in front of my eyes."

Ashraf al-Bitar, 23, a member of the Hamas naval police, said Hamas had to react once Fatah gunmen started shooting and their supporters stoned police and called them Shia.

After Hamas took over Gaza, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah dissolved the Hamas-led unity government, in which several Fatah ministers had served, and appointed a caretaker government made up mostly of independents in the West Bank.

Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2006, does not recognize the authority of the Abbas government and rules alone in Gaza.

Also yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he is considering releasing more Palestinian prisoners ahead of the international Middle East peace conference expected to take place in Annapolis in the coming weeks.

Olmert "is well aware of the importance of the prisoner issue to the Palestinians," said his spokeswoman, Miri Eisin.

Israel has released about 350 Palestinian prisoners, mostly belonging to Fatah, in two batches since July, in gestures meant to bolster Abbas. There are more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

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