Text size

Hundreds of Fatah activists, angry at their party's election defeat, entered the compound of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday to pray at the grave of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The group, which included several gunmen, were allowed into the compound by guards and peacefully proceeded toward Arafat's tomb in an empty lot inside. Abbas' security force formed a cordon around the activists to prevent them from approaching the nearby building that holds the Palestinian leader's office.

As the protesters marched toward the compound they chanted: "Abu Amar, we are defending you with our souls," referring to Arafat by his nickname.

Earlier Saturday, Fatah gunmen and PA police, angry at Hamas' election victory, briefly took over parliament buildings in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and opened fire in the air, witnesses said.

Some climbed on to the roof of the parliament in Ramallah, which was not in session at the time. In the Gaza Strip, police stormed into the parliament building's compound.

Thousands of angry Fatah activists, led by masked gunmen firing wildly in the air, marched in the West Bank towns on Saturday, demanding the resignation of party leaders following Fatah's defeat by the Islamic militant Hamas in this week's parliament election.

Some of the gunmen threatened to resume attacks against Israel, and others warned they would kill Fatah politician who join a Hamas government.

In the city of Nablus, about 2,000 Fatah members marched through the streets, led by dozens of gunmen from the Fatah-allied Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, who climbed aboard the back of a truck and fired in the air.

"Al Aqsa, from Rafah to Jenin, has stopped the cease-fire," one of the gunmen aboard the truck, Nasser Haras, told the crowd. "We are now no longer part of the cease-fire."

Haras said Fatah gunmen would now join forces with Islamic Jihad militants, a small faction that has not observed the cease-fire and carried out six suicide bombings in Israel in the past year. "There will be surprises soon," Haras told the activists.

Some 20,000 Fatah supporters marched in angry protests across the Gaza Strip, burning cars outside the Palestinian parliament building and firing rifles in the air. Some Hamas posters were ripped down by the crowd, which burned tires in the streets.

Mohammad Dahlan, a leading Fatah figure in the Gaza Strip, stood before the demonstrators near the parliament building in Gaza, imploring them to temper their protests.

"You are harming the memory of Yasser Arafat," he told them. Dahlan promised the demonstrators that Fatah would not take part in a government formed by Hamas.

Hamas and Fatah gunmen continued to exchange fire in the Gaza Strip on Saturday morning, with reports of two police officers being wounded in a Hamas ambush.

Hamas was not immediately available for comment on the incident in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis.

A shootout broke out Friday night between activists from Hamas and the Fatah Party in Khan Yunis, wounding one police officer and one Hamas supporter, police said.

The violence erupted when a small group of Hamas supporters shot at Fatah loyalists were tearing down Hamas election posters, police said. The Fatah activists and nearby police shot back.

The incident was the second instance of violence in Khan Yunis on Friday. Earlier in the day, three people were wounding in a clash between Fatah and Hamas, one by gunfire and two by rock throwing.

About 1,000 angry party activists, including 100 gunmen, drove by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' residence in Gaza, calling from loudspeakers for all corrupt leaders to step down and urging Abbas not to form a coalition with Hamas. Abbas was in the West Bank town of Ramallah at the time.

In the southern West Bank town of Hebron, about 500 protesters marched through the city center, also calling for the resignation of party leaders. A small group of the demonstrators called on Abbas to resign.

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Fatah's military wing, issued a statement threatening to "liquidate" the faction's leaders if they changed their minds and joined a Hamas-led administration.

Outgoing Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath defended Abbas as the only hope for salvaging the peace process. "His resignation would lead to either total chaos or to Hamas taking over the presidency as well," he told CNN, adding, "Abbas is only safety valve we've got... to salvage the peace process and give it a chance."

After evening prayers, the protesters went back to Abbas' house, and fired rifles in the air, before marching and driving through the city, waving Palestinian flags, yellow Fatah flags and posters of the late leader Yasser Arafat.

"We don't want to join the Hamas government. We don't want corrupt leadership. We want reform and we want to fire all the corrupt," one group of thousands chanted at an earlier demonstration outside a Palestinian government building in Gaza City. Several gunmen shot in the air.

The demonstrations did not turn violent. However, earlier in the day an argument between about 20 Hamas and Fatah loyalists in the Gaza town of Khan Yunis degenerated into gunfire and rock throwing that left three people injured. One man was treated for moderate gunshot wounds and two for minor injuries caused by rocks, according to witnesses and hospital officials.

Dahlan, who won election as a Fatah legislator, was seen in the crowd outside the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza City, shaking hands with the activists.

The Fatah defeat was seen as a rebuke to veteran, and corrupt, party leaders. Those leaders have resisted repeated calls for party reform by the Fatah young guard. Speakers at the rally demanded the resignation of Fatah's top leaders but they did not mention Abbas by name.

"This demonstration is a natural reaction of Fatah supporters and members. We have one demand that the [Fatah] central committee and the Revolutionary Council should resign immediately," said Samir Mashrawi, a local Fatah leader who was defeated in the election.

"We are against joining any coalition with Hamas because this means a disaster for Fatah and the Palestinian people," he said, "Instead, we want to be a strong opposition and we want to fight and end the corruption of some of Fatah's historical leaders."