Civil war feared as Palestinian factions flex muscle

by Adel Zaanoun
58 minutes ago

GAZA CITY (AFP) - Hamas and Fatah paramilitaries staged mass shows of strength amid warnings that the Islamists' decision to deploy its gunmen on the streets of Gaza could trigger a Palestinian civil war.

Thousands of security officers denounced a rival militia, dispatched by the Hamas government a day earlier in a bid to restore order to the territory, and pledge support for beleaguered Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.

Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya insisted the unit was "set up in keeping with the law, the basic law and direct agreement with president Abbas" -- illiciting flat denials from the presidency.

"You were in the resistance. Today you are protecting the nation, security and the people," Haniya told hundreds of recruits of the new paramilitary.

Tensions spread beyond Gaza, as Hamas deputy premier Nasserdine al-Shaer cut short a tour in the West Bank when Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades gunmen, loosely affiliated to Abbas's Fatah faction, opened fire and blocked his vehicle.

Al-Aqsa supporters have said they will have no truck with the new force which began its operations in Gaza on Wednesday, despite Hamas interior minister Said Siam's insistence that its ranks were open to all-comers.

Abbas, as Palestinian Authority president, is meant to be overall commander of the security services. Their main branches are dominated by Fatah supporters despite Hamas's victory in a January parliamentary election.

Abbas's office made clear the president's anger at the deployment of the Hamas forces at a time when he was in Europe -- ironically to lobby for an end to the international community's isolation of the Hamas-led government.

"Any situation in which two different forces, seemingly taking orders from separate authorities, are attempting to take charge of maintaining law and order in Gaza, is untenable," his office said.

Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina denied there was any agreement with Hamas over creating a new force, only on incorporating gunmen into the existing security forces commanded by the Palestinian Authority.

"There was no agreement between president Abbas and prime minister Haniya on forming a special security force of armed Palestinian factions. It is impossible under Palestinian basic law to form a new force," he told AFP.

A senior official in Abbas's office went further by warning that the deployment of the new force "could lead to a civil war" and demanding that the force withdraw to allow the security services to carry out their duties.

Around 3,000 members of the security services -- drawn from the ranks of the national and preventive security forces as well as Abbas's own elite Force 17 unit -- rallied in downtown Gaza City to denounce the new force.

Another 1,500 supporters of Fatah and leftist Palestinian parties later marched through Gaza City shouting: "We will not be led by masked men. Down with the militia. Up with the law".

Yet an interior ministry spokesman sought to downplay the rift with Abbas.

"We don't receive our directions from president Abbas through the media... We are here to help the police," Khaled Mussa Abu Hilal told AFP.

Deputy speaker of parliament Ahmed Bahar, among a group of Hamas lawmakers visiting the new paramilitary detachments in Gaza City, lashed out at the Fatah-dominated police for allegedly refusing orders.

"Where were the police when the interior minister asked them to go into the streets and take control? We are saying to our brothers in the security services that we are one people and we must stand together," he said.

Amid fears that the tensions could spread beyond Gaza, which borders Egypt, Hamas and Fatah officials attended three-way talks in Gaza with an Egyptian intelligence official but the session ended with no concrete agreement.