Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip arrested at least 160 activists from the rival Fatah group Saturday, rousting many from their sleep before dawn, in one of the worst flare-ups of internal Palestinian strife in more than a year.
The clampdown followed a Friday night seaside bombing that killed five Hamas members and a 6-year-old girl. Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, blamed the blast on its more secular Fatah adversaries, who denied involvement.
Security police set up roadblocks across the coastal enclave, seized equipment and files from Fatah’s news agency and raided about 40 Fatah- affiliated civic organizations. In one unsuccessful arrest attempt, police fired four rocket-propelled grenades at the home of a Fatah leader and exchanged fire with his guards.
The violence reflects a factional rift that has complicated the Bush administration’s push for a peace pact between the Palestinians and Israel.
Hamas and Fatah shared power in a short-lived Palestinian Authority coalition government that broke apart in June 2007, when Hamas, after days of heavy urban combat, seized control of Gaza. The split left Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the U.S.-backed Fatah leader, in charge of only the West Bank.
Since then, Abbas has tried to reach an accord with Israel that would give Palestinians an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza. Months of negotiations have made little visible progress, however, in part because of Israel’s doubts that Abbas could temper his rivals’ hostility to the Jewish state and enforce a peace accord.
Tensions in Gaza cooled last month. Hamas reached a truce agreement with Israel that, despite scattered violations, has held. Abbas called for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and the groups held low-level meetings.
Three explosions Friday shattered the factional calm.
The first killed an employee and wounded three people at a Gaza City cafe that had been targeted by Islamists twice this year as a symbol of Western influence.
Later, a bomb damaged the home of a Hamas lawmaker. A Fatah supporter was arrested as a suspect.
The third blast went off under a parked car, spraying shrapnel at a group of Hamas activists picnicking on the beach. Three activists and the child were killed instantly; two of the 17 others wounded died Saturday, medical officials said. A senior Hamas field commander was among the dead.
Palestinian Authority legislator Khalil Hayeh, the commander’s uncle, marched with thousands of fellow Hamas activists in a funeral procession punctuated by automatic rifle fire into the air. Orators denounced Fatah members as “collaborators” with Israel.
“The collaborators who did this must be hung in Palestine Square and shot,” the lawmaker said, referring to Gaza City’s main square. “The people who stand behind this are from Fatah. We hold their leaders responsible.”
News organizations received e-mail messages of unclear origin saying that a Fatah offshoot, Al Awda Brigade, set off the seaside blast. Hamas carried the statement on its websites, and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, called it “proof that Fatah is not interested in dialogue.” The e-mail claim could not be verified, and Fatah officials said there is no such group. --
Special correspondent Abu Alouf reported from Gaza City and Times staff writer Boudreaux from Jerusalem.