Gaza on brink as Hamas deploys militia

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The Hamas-led Palestinian Authority has deployed a new militia in Gaza under the command of a leading militant and in direct defiance of a veto by the PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The paramilitary "implementation force", led by Jamal Abu Samadhana, prominent on Israel's wanted list, took up positions on the streets of Gaza City and elsewhere yesterday with the stated aim of restoring order in the increasingly lawless Strip. Late last night security force units loyal to Mr Abbas began patrolling Gaza as part of what a security official told Reuters would be the largest such deployment since the run-up to Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last August.

The moves risked increasing tension between Fatah and Hamas after two Hamas militants were killed in drive-by shootings which the faction blamed on the Fatah-dominated Preventative Security Force. But by 1am there had been no clashes between the rival forces.

Hamas partly fought the January election on a law and order ticket amid hopes that it would put an end to tribal and factional shootings, kidnappings and other violence.

But witnesses told Associated Press that members of the Hamas-supporting force ­ many with the beards favoured by Gaza's devout Muslims ­ had also beaten demonstrators at the education ministry offices in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis. Ministry officials and protesters said around 40 militiamen had jumped from jeeps and fired in the air before entering the building and attacking protesters with clubs and rifles.

Jamal Abu Samadhana is a prominent member of the Popular Resistance Committee, which is believed to be responsible for many of the rocket attacks on Israel and has been suspected of involvement in the bombing which killed three Americans travelling through Gaza in October 2003.

Units of the force ­ said to number 3,000 in all ­ were ordered on to the streets by the Hamas Interior Minister Said Syam after the shootings " to protect the security of the citizens and their property".

This was despite explicit rejection of the new force by Mr Abbas, who insisted he was in overall charge of security and has been building up his own personal security force with US help. Maher Mekdad, a Fatah spokesman in Gaza, declared: "The formation of this unit is illegal. It violates the presidential decree, and it's a unit outside the law."

There were no claims of responsibility for the drive-by shootings but Mushir al-Masri, a prominent Hamas parliamentarian in Gaza, said: "This is a plan of the Preventative Security to draw Hamas into a civil war and to make the government appear ineffective." Meanwhile in Strasbourg, Mr Abbas said in an interview with AP that Hamas "can't survive" if it continues to ignore international demands that it refrain from violence and recognise Israel. "They should adapt to international standards, they should be part of the international community. Without that I don't think they can survive, I don't think they can deliver," he said. Mr Abbas added: "Whether it is reasonable to expect a change or not we have to give them a chance. They've been in office less than a month and a half. They should take their chance."

Meanwhile the new Labour Defence Minister, Amir Peretz, signalled a new approach to Gaza's economic crisis by requesting the army to reopen the Karni cargo crossing into Israel for export cargo. Yesterday was the first day the crossing ­ which has been closed for much of the past six months ­ was opened for outgoing traffic since Palestinian police foiled an attack on it on 26 April.

Professor Rafi Walden and Professor Zvi Bentwich, two senior Israeli clinicians on the board of Physicians for Human Rights ­ Israel, called on the Israeli government to take immediate action to pay directly for drugs, medical salaries and hospital treatment for Palestinians to relieve what they warned was now a rapidly worsening medical emergency in Gaza. They rejected claims that the international and Israeli boycott of funding to the PA would not affect humanitarian needs. Professor Bentwich said of the government: "The reality of what they have done is clearly not fitting with what they have stated."

An Israeli official said that Israel was now discussing the creation of an independent unit at every medical centre to pay Palestinian clinicians' salaries. The official added that provisions had been made for the direct payment to Israeli hospitals for Palestinian patients out of the revenues it is withholding from the PA. But officials at Shifa hospital in Gaza City say that 270 patients are awaiting transfer to Israel partly because the PA has no funds to pay for treatment there.