Gaza leaders struggle to bring feuding forces back from the brink

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The Independent Online

The Palestinian President and Prime Minister met twice yesterday in a desperate effort to drag their rival security forces back from the brink of civil war in the Gaza Strip. But with the rhetoric at fever pitch after the massacre of a local pro-Fatah commander and five of his bodyguards at his home on Thursday night, Fatah and Hamas sources doubted whether Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh would succeed for long in keeping the guns off the streets.

Thousands braved torrential rain and near-zero temperatures to follow the flag-draped bodies of Col Mohammed Ghayeb and his men to the grave. A masked militant fired bursts in the air and called for revenge. "The hand which fired against him and his comrades will be cut off," he shouted. A leaflet circulated in Gaza by Mr Abbas' Fatah threatened: "Blood for blood and aggression for aggression, and the aggressor will pay more." It added that there could be no dialogue "so long as Hamas continues to practise planned murder and organised terrorism".

It held Mr Haniyeh and his Interior Minister, Said Siyam, responsible for the killings. A Hamas spokesman replied by accusing Fatah of "inflaming events instead of calming them". Col Ghayeb was on the phone to Palestinian television as the Hamas forces stormed his home with rockets and grenades. "They are targeting the house, children are dying, they are bleeding," he screamed. "For God's sake, send an ambulance, we want an ambulance, somebody move!" Eight children and Col Ghayeb's wife were among about three dozen wounded.

After the first emergency meeting between the President and Prime Minister, Mr Haniyeh said they had agreed that armed displays would be forbidden and that an independent committee would investigate the breakdown of a truce agreed two weeks ago.

"There are serious problems, such as Jerusalem, the refugees and the separation fence," the Islamist Premier added. "We must put aside our disagreements and turn to dialogue to solve them, since we have no choice but to unite. The battle against the occupation is still long and brutal." The second meeting ended last night with no further statement.

Walid Awad, a senior Fatah official, saw little chance of ending the fratricidal violence or building a national-unity government. "Whether withdrawal from the streets of Gaza will happen is questionable," he said. "There isn't much discipline around there. The chances of a unity government are remote because the gap between the two sides is very big. It seems they are irreconcilable as things stand now." He predicted that either the Palestinian public would take to the streets and demand a solution from both sides, or Mr Abbas would go ahead with his threat to call early elections. This threat earlier provoked bloodshed. Hamas denounced it as a coup against its elected government.

The United States was yesterday reported to be preparing to invest $86m (£44m) to strengthen security forces loyal to Mr Abbas. Reuters quoted a leaked document as saying the money would be used to "assist the Palestinian Authority presidency in fulfilling its commitments to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism and establish law and order in the West Bank and Gaza".

Ismail Radwan, a Hamas spokesman, condemned US intervention. "It will only escalate the differences and increase the internal conflict," he said. "But it will not achieve the American goal. Our people understand what is going on and are committed to unity against the Zionist enemy."

American officials in Jerusalem declined to confirm or deny the report, but European diplomats said the $86m would significantly strengthen Mr Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas. Since it is still subject to congressional approval, however, it will have no impact on the immediate crisis.

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