Warning of 'civil war' in Gaza strip

AFTER the worst outbreak of violence between rival Palestinian groups in the Gaza strip for several years, a senior Palestinian leader warned yesterday that civil war could break out in the occupied territories ahead of the new round of peace talks.

Last night clashes broke out in the Beach Camp refugee enclave after supporters of the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist group, Hamas, appealed through the mosques for peace.

The mosques in the camp were immediately attacked by militants from the rival Fatah faction, the mainstream group of the Palestine Liberation Organisation which has been involved in clashes with Hamas for several days, resulting on Tuesday in the death of a 16-year-old boy.

The call from the mosques which echoed around the camp pleaded for women and children and families of political prisoners to come out on to the street to prevent further bloodshed between the two groups. Thousands of Beach Camp residents responded to the appeal but Israeli soldiers were swiftly on the scene to disperse the militants.

The violence appears to have been sparked by a tussle for power as the prospect of autonomy for the occupied territories has increased with the election of Yitzhak Rabin, the Labour leader, as Prime Minister. Mr Rabin has promised to implement autonomy within six to nine months.

The Hamas group has in the past rejected all involvement with the peace process and now accuses the PLO faction of giving in to Israeli and US conditions for peace.

The head of the Palestinian delegation to the talks, Haidar Abdel Shafi, yesterday warned that 'civil war' could break out in Gaza before the new round of talks starts in Rome within the next few weeks.

On the walls of Gaza's Islamic University the depth of the animosity between the fundamentalists and the PLO group was yesterday writ large.

Hamas accused Fatah of a plot to eliminate the Islamic movement and its leaders. 'With the great growth of the Islamic movement and also after the Israeli election, Fatah is trying to spread the propaganda of their allies in the Labour party. It is using a terrorist plot against Hamas.' The words were signed by the El Kassen Brigade, the armed wing of Hamas.

The fundamentalists of Hamas, who reject the peace process, accuse the Palestinian leadership, many of whom support Fatah, of being in the hands of the Israelis and of carrying out what they say is the West's plan to have Hamas eliminated. The Fatah faction says Hamas is provoking the violence to assert its strength before autonomy is achieved. Both sides suspect Israeli provocation.

Inside the Islamic University, Abdel Aziz Rentisi, a founder of the Hamas movement in 1987, accused Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, of kowtowing to the West by talking peace. 'The Islamic movement will be the victim of the peace process,' said Dr Rentisi, a paediatrician and lecturer at the university. Although Hamas rejects the peace process, Dr Rentisi said the organisation would participate in the autonomy election.

He attacked Fatah leaders for calling for an end to the killing of Palestinians who collaborate with the Israelis. 'Fatah is going to stop Hamas from attacking the Jews and collaborators on the orders of the US,' he said.

The violence started when Hamas said it had unearthed a plot by Fatah to kidnap and kill Hamas leaders - but Dr Rentisi would not reveal the evidence. Hamas distributed letters to Fatah activists threatening them with death. In reply Fatah threatened to kill Hamas's 'scum leadership'. After the war of leaflets came the real war between the Fatah Hawks - formerly called the Black Panthers - and the El Kassen Brigade. Scores have been injured after clashes in refugee camps.