150 Fatah men enter Israel after fleeing Gaza violence
Nine dead, 80 hurt in clashes between Hamas, Fatah-linked Gaza clan; Gaza officials: 12 children hurt.
Over 150 members of the Fatah-linked Hilles clan fled the Gaza Strip on Saturday and entered Israel, after a day of clashes with the ruling Hamas faction had left at least nine people dead and more than 80 wounded.
Hamas security forces and members of the Hilles clan exchanged mortar shell and machine gun fire all day Saturday in the most violent round yet of Hamas' weeklong crackdown on political rival Fatah.
Twelve of the wounded were children, hospital officials said, and eight people were in critical condition.
With Saturday's violence, the current round of Hamas-Fatah tensions threatened to spiral out of control. The confrontations began last week when an explosion at a beachside cafe killed five Hamas militants and a 6-year-old girl in Gaza. In response, Hamas seized more than 200 Fatah supporters in the biggest crackdown since wresting control of the territory from Abbas and his Fatah faction in June 2007.
Israeli officials said Saturday that the Hilles clan members were allowed through the Erez and Nahal Oz border crossings between Gaza and Israel, some of them wounded, while Hamas gunmen followed and fired at them. Hamas militants also fired mortars at Israel Defense Forces soldiers who were present in the area.
Clan leader and senior Fatah official Ahmed Hilles was among those who had reached Israel. He too had been wounded in the violence.
The office of Defense Minister Ehud Barak received a request from Egypt as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to allow the Fatah men to enter Israel, and consequently authorized their entry. Barak instructed Israel Defense Forces troops manning the crossings to conduct a security check on the fleeing Gazans and then transfer them to the West Bank, unless they required medical attention, in which case they were taken to Be'er Sheva's Soroka Hospital.
The decision to allow the Palestinians entry was based on what Barak's office described as "humanitarian motives" but it was clear that the move aimed to signal Israel's willingness to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority and Egypt.
Cairo has been mediating the negotiations between Israel and Hamas over the release of the captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Gaza militants in June 2006.
Magen David Adom emergency medical teams evacuated at least nine wounded Palestinians from the border crossing to Soroka Hospital. Three of them were in moderate to serious condition, MDA said, adding that more wounded were expected later Saturday.
Loud explosions and gunfire could be heard throughout the day across Gaza City. Hamas said its forces had arrested 15 people, including 10 who had tried to flee disguised as women, and confiscated weapons.
In retaliation, masked Fatah gunmen in the West Bank briefly seized a Hamas-linked university professor as he drove in his car and threatened to execute him unless Hamas halts the Gaza raid. He was later released unharmed.
Fatah retaliated by arresting scores of Hamas activists Saturday in the West Bank, which the group controls.
Saturday's fighting began under heavy morning fog when Hamas police took up positions in Gaza City's Shijaiyeh neighborhood, a stronghold of the Fatah-allied Hilles clan. Hamas accused the Hilles clan of hiding suspects in last week's bombing, an allegation denied by Ahmed Hilles, a Fatah leader and senior clan member.
By Saturday afternoon, hundreds of Hamas security forces members were deployed in the neighborhood, patrolling the streets and searching houses. Hamas policemen fired in the air in celebration. A senior Hamas police official said searches would continue in coming days. Hamas also fired several mortar shells toward the nearby border with Israel, apparently to prevent fugitives from getting away.
Hilles said Hamas police cut off electricity as they launched the raid, but said his clan would defend itself. "You have to decide: Either be trampled under Hamas' shoes, or stand in dignity," he said in a phone interview, as gunfire crackled in the background.
Hamas police spokesman Islam Shahwan said several clan members tried to flee disguised as women.
Three Hamas police officers and a member of the Hilles clan were killed. During the fighting, a rocket hit members of a family, wounding several people, said Shahwan.
Shahwan said Hamas security men stormed several high-rise buildings and arrested rooftop snipers, as well as gunmen and wounded fighters.
"We are determined to continue the raid until we arrest all those involved," Shahwan said.
"This is just the beginning," he said.
The official Palestinian news agency WAFA said Abbas telephoned Ahmed Hilles to express solidarity. Abbas called Hamas's campaign "unacceptable" and "a blow" to his call for national dialogue.
Hamas officials shut down a radio station affiliated with the small Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, saying that the station was reporting lies and rumors and inciting sedition, the group said.
A senior Abbas aide in the West Bank, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, denounced Gaza's Hamas rulers as the new Mongols.
But in act of goodwill, Hamas released 10 Fatah leaders under Egyptian mediation.
Meanwhile, Fatah-allied gunmen seized Mohammed Ghazal, a professor and senior Hamas member, in the West Bank city of Nablus, and threatened to kill him unless Hamas forces called off its raid in Gaza.
Witnesses saw masked gunmen speed away in a car with Ghazal.
Also in Nablus, pro-Fatah security forces searched cars at checkpoints in northern West Bank cities, checking identification cards. Dozens of Palestinian Authority security men toting AK-47s in blue and khaki uniforms patrolled Nablus.
Hamas said two more supporters were arrested in the West Bank overnight, bringing the total in the past week to more than 150.
Abbas' forces also arrested some 40 loyalists from the Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party), an Islamic group that calls for the establishment of a pan-Muslim state, said a spokesman for the group, Muaz Abu Abed.
Abu Abed said the arrests aimed to thwart the group's plans to hold an annual rally.
The Liberation Party frequently denounces the West Bank's moderate leadership as infidels, but unlike Hamas espouses nonviolent change.
Meanwhile on Saturday, Fatah threatened Saturday night to take action against the Islamist Hamas movement in the West Bank if the latter does not stop its military campaign against Fatah members in Gaza Strip.
Fatah spokesman in the West Bank Fahmi Za'arir told a press conference in Ramallah that unless Hamas ends its action against Fatah members in Gaza and release all the detainees, Fatah in the West Bank will detain and hold Hamas members as hostages until Hamas releases Fatah members in Gaza.
He demanded that Hamas should end its military campaign against Fatah in Gaza and release all the prisoners, and that the Hamas leadership in the West Bank openly declare its opposition to Hamas actions in Gaza.
If this is not done, he said, Fatah activists will act against Hamas leaders in the West Bank and detain them until Hamas accepts Fatah's two conditions.