Bloody battle between Palestinian factions leaves six dead in West Bank

Raid may boost President Abbas's standing with US

Two top Hamas fugitives armed with grenades and automatic weapons holed themselves up in a house in the West Bank and defied calls to surrender by Fatah security forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, triggering a firefight that left six people dead yesterday. The battle was the bloodiest between the two Palestinian groups in two years, and came just days after Mr Abbas's trip to Washington where he promised US President Barack Obama he would fulfil his security commitments.

Mohammad al-Samman, the leader of Hamas's armed wing in the northern West Bank, had taken refuge with his deputy Mohammad Yasin in a house in the town of Qalqilya. When Palestinian Authority forces came to arrest them, they opened fire. The two men, and the owner of the house were killed, along with three of the security forces. Dozens of bullet holes in walls and furniture showed the ferocity of the fight.

"The Palestinian security forces will strike with an iron fist against anyone harming the interests of the Palestinian people," Mr Abbas, who described the Hamas men as "outlaws", was quoted as saying by the Palestinian WAFA news agency.

The president is keen to show he is implementing Palestinian commitments to crack down on militants undertaken in the 2003 roadmap peace blueprint. Mr Abbas reportedly emerged from his White House meeting last Thursday with high hopes of a stepped up US role in prodding peace negotiations and freezing illegal Israeli settlement construction.

While the weekend raid may have boosted his credentials in Washington, it angered Hamas, which opposes a negotiated settlement with Israel, believes nothing will come of the Obama diplomacy, and considers Mr. Abbas's steps against the militia to be treason. For both sides, memories are fresh of Hamas's armed takeover of Gaza in 2007, something Mr Abbas is determined to prevent in the West Bank.

Abu Obeida, the spokesman for Hamas's armed wing, Izzedin al-Qassam has accused the Abbas-aligned forces of being "loyal to the Zionists". "It is the right of the resistance fighter to resist his being abducted and there is no difference between the occupier who opens fire and the traitor who performs the occupier's mission," he said.

Hamas legislators in Gaza issued a statement noting the Qalqilya raid came days after Israeli forces killed Qassam's leader in Hebron, Abd al-Majid Dudein, an operation in which Hamas believes Fatah was an accomplice. They termed yesterday's raid "a great betrayal against the Palestinian people and a stab in the back of the Arab and Islamic nations".

Some commentators noted that this time Hamas militants had decided to resist rather than give themselves up to the security forces as in previous instances. "This could be the beginning of a new policy by Hamas to make the PA think twice about arrests or it could be an isolated incident, we will have to see," said Hani Masri, a columnist for the al-Ayyam newspaper.

*Israel's cabinet yesterday rejected a proposal to require that residents swear loyalty to the Jewish state, dealing a setback to a measure critics said could have curbed the rights of Arab citizens. The measure, proposed last week by the ultra-right Yisrael Beitenu Party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, may still be introduced privately in Parliament, though without government backing its chances for approval were uncertain.