Hamas, activists battle


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Dozens of Hamas militants yesterday rushed to the aid of a Cabinet minister confronted by angry gunmen, sparking a shootout that wounded three people in the latest explosion of infighting in the Gaza Strip.

The incident showed how the new Hamas-led government is turning to its private army to impose order as it battles the rival Fatah movement for control of Palestinian security forces.

The power struggle has grown increasingly contentious in recent days since Hamas announced it would form a security agency headed by a militant wanted by Israel. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah vetoed the plan, leading to clashes and protests.

The two sides agreed early yesterday to work to end the tensions, but the pledge quickly degenerated into new violence. Thousands of Fatah activists joined anti-Hamas protests in the West Bank, hours before the shootout at the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza.

The shootout came a day after Health Minister Bassem Naim, a top Hamas official, said he was cutting $2 million from the monthly health budget to help alleviate a government financial crisis by halting payments for patients seeking treatment abroad. Gaza’s health care system is poor, and Palestinians routinely travel to Israel and other countries for treatment.

Yesterday, a group of men, some armed, burst into Naim’s office and demanded he authorize a medical-care trip for a relative, Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Radi said.

Naim’s bodyguards – Hamas militants – called for backup from their colleagues, and a brief shootout wounded three people, witnesses and Palestinian security officials said.

After a 45-minute standoff, masked Hamas militants, joined by Palestinian police, retook the building, arresting gunmen. Naim left surrounded by 10 militants.

The minister’s reliance on Hamas gunmen – not the Fatah-dominated security services – illustrated the deep distrust between the sides.

Abbas, a political moderate has been trying to use his already considerable powers to marginalize Hamas, which formed a Cabinet after winning January elections. Abbas favors peace talks with Israel, while Hamas calls for the destruction of the Jewish state and is listed as a terror organization by the United States and the European Union.

After Abbas tried to take control of all Palestinian security forces, Hamas responded last week with a plan to form its own shadow army made up of militants and headed by a top militant wanted by Israel.

Abbas promptly vetoed that plan, and Hamas’ exiled political chief, Khaled Mashaal, accused him of cooperating with Israel and the United States and “plotting against us.”