Violent protests rage through Gaza Strip

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Heavily armed Hamas militiamen’s efforts to break up anti-government protests yesterday sparked gunbattles across the Gaza Strip that killed seven people in the worst internal Palestinian violence since Hamas took power.

Militants from the opposition Fatah group retaliated by torching the Palestinian Cabinet building in the West Bank.

The violence comes amid growing frustration over forming a national unity government that could end crippling economic sanctions.

The fighting continued throughout the day and sent schoolchildren and other civilians in downtown Gaza City fleeing for cover.

“This is forbidden in Islam, we are in the holy month of Ramadan,” said Majed Badawi, 33, who managed to escape after his car was caught in the crossfire.

“It’s a shame on Hamas, who call themselves real Muslims, and a shame of Fatah as well. Why are they fighting and over what? We are victims because of both of them.”

Violence between Fatah and Hamas loyalists plagued Gaza throughout the spring, but largely disappeared when Israel launched an offensive here in late June after Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier.

Israel’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said yesterday that the military was considering another ground offensive.

Hours later, Israeli tanks, bulldozers and troops moved into northern Gaza.

The army said the operation was aimed at preventing rocket fire from militants.

Looking to a possible new Israeli offensive, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, urged Palestinians to end the internal violence “in the face of a serious escalation from the occupation forces.”

Haniyeh spoke with President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, by telephone and called for joint action to end the fighting, Haniyeh’s office said.

But in a televised speech, Haniyeh also defended the Hamas militiamen, saying they acted lawfully in trying to break up the protests.

Fatah officials blamed Hamas for the chaos.

“Nothing can justify this violence,” Fatah spokesman Tawfik Abu Khoussa said.

Hamas has been under pressure since it took over the Palestinian Authority after its January election victory over the long-ruling Fatah.

Abbas, who was in Jordan yesterday, has tried to end the crisis by persuading Hamas to form a coalition government and to accept international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Hamas has resisted compromising its radical ideology.

In recent weeks, civil servants – including members of the security forces, many of them Fatah loyalists – held expanding protests against the Hamas-led government to demand back wages.