20 hurt as Fatah, Hamas activists clash in Gaza
A political rally by the militant Palestinian group Hamas turned violent Saturday, as supporters of the rival Fatah faction opened fire, sparking a melee that left more than 20 people wounded, a Palestinian official said.
The incident in the M'ghazi refugee camp in central Gaza was the first instance of violence between rival Palestinian factions since the election of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in early January.
The shooting occurred at an outdoor rally staged by Hamas to celebrate its victory in municipal elections in Gaza earlier in the week. Hamas' strong showing dealt a setback to Abbas' dominant Fatah faction.
A Palestinian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the violence broke out after several hundred Hamas supporters marched from the nearby Ansarat refugee camp to M'ghazi, one of the few districts won by Fatah in Thursday's elections.
"You chose secularism. You should have chose Islam," the Hamas crowd chanted, angering a crowd of Fatah supporters who had gathered.
One of the Fatah supporters opened fire, seriously wounding one Hamas supporter in the chest and causing shrapnel wounds to four others, officials said. Some 17 other people were hurt by knives, clubs and beatings in the ensuing melee.
Following Hamas' sweeping victory in the Gaza municipal elections, a senior official in the Bush administration said Saturday the results were worrying.
The final election results showed Friday that Hamas won control of seven of the ten municipal councils that held elections, including the three largest ones: Dir al-Balah, Bnei Siheileh, and Beit Hanun.
Clashes broke out between members of Hamas and Fatah in the Mr?azi refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip against the backdrop of the elections.
The brawl started when the Hamas supporters organized a victory procession through the refugee camp, where the Fatah won in the elections.
The incident quickly degenerated into rock hurling and several exchanges of fire.
Some 20 people were injured in the incident.
But a senior figure in the radical Islamic organization said Friday this victory demonstrates Hamas' success as a political, rather than a strictly militant entity.
Speaking to reporters in Gaza, Mahmoud al-Zahar said "The clear message [the election results relay] to the Zionist entity is that the programme of the resistance led by Hamas ... can carry out achievements in other areas," meaning the political sphere.
Zahar added that Hamas would still not accept a truce unless Israel agreed to conditions it still has not promised to fulfill, including freeing Palestinian prisoners.
A senior U.S. State Department official, reacting to the poll results, said that only Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' policy counted. The Hamas, he said, "are not people we have to work with."
But another senior official in the Bush administration admitted the results were worrying.
"It is always worrying when people linked to violent faction achieve success," he said.
"Whether their [the election results] effect the global policy still remains to be seen," he said.
Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party won the remaining three councils, including the Marazi refugee camp.
The first-ever municipal elections in Gaza, which were held on Thursday, were seen as a test of strength between the Islamic militant group and Abbas.
Hamas won 75 out of the 118 seats in the 10 local councils, while the ruling Fatah party won 39 seats.
"Our people have a consensus on the choice of jihad and resistance and the election has underscored that concept," Hamas spokesman Muhir al-Masri told reporters following the announcement of the results.
"We consider this victory as the victory of the Palestinian people," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "It's not the victory of somebody against somebody, the competition was to serve our people's interests."
"Hamas's victory proves Islam is the solution," blared loudspeakers as thousands of supporters celebrated in the streets beneath fluttering green Hamas flags.
Voter turnout topped 80 percent for the poll, which was the second stage of Palestinian local elections. The first was held in 26 local councils in the West Bank in December. In the West Bank elections, the Fatah party won 12 of the councils, while the Hamas won eight and independent candidtates won the remainder.
Local Government Minister Jamal al-Shobaki, a Fatah member, said the high turnout showed that "Palestinian people understand that democracy and elections are the start to the end of occupation."
The Hamas victories reflected widespread support in Gaza for the violent Islamic movement, which provides welfare, schools and kindergartens to the impoverished people in the territory, alongside its attacks against Israel.
The Hamas is leaning towards participating in July elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, and it is possible that Thursday's victory will impact the militant organization's decision.
"The results showed that our people are insisting Hamas take part in the upcoming ballot," said Abu Zuhri.
The Hamas boycotted the elections for the Palestinian Authority chairmanship held January 9, in which Abbas won a landslide victory.
A U.S. State Department official had no immediate comment on the poll, but said: "We'll follow this situation and see if it has any effect on President Abbas' moves to control the security situation and to eliminate violence."