GAZA (Reuters) - At least 10 Palestinians were killed on Tuesday -- eight in one incident -- in the deadliest fighting between Hamas and Fatah since the rivals formed a unity government to end bloodshed threatening to spill into civil war.
For many Palestinians, the violence was particularly disturbing, coming on the “Nakba”, an annual day of national reflection over shared suffering in the conflict with Israel.
In an attack near Karni Crossing, Gaza’s main commercial lifeline with Israel, Hamas gunmen killed eight members of Mahmoud Abbas’s Presidential Guard, a Fatah spokesman said.
The Fatah-affiliated guardsmen were en route to help comrades under assault by Hamas at a training base near the crossing when Israeli forces across the frontier opened fire at them, the spokesman, Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, said.
“Some of the vehicles overturned and some of the men were wounded. The forces retreated but they were ambushed by Hamas gunmen, who finished them off,” he said.
“They were killed in cold blood,” Abu Khoussa said, putting the number of dead at eight.
Hamas’s armed wing denied the allegation, blaming their deaths on Israel and accusing Fatah of killing one of its commanders earlier.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said Israeli forces shot at two gunmen who approached the border fence, hitting one of them.
In a separate incident, a pro-Fatah security officer was killed and three others were wounded in a shooting near their base in Gaza City, medical workers said. Fatah blamed Hamas.
Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah formed a unity government two months ago in a Saudi-brokered deal that left the crucial issue of control over security forces unresolved and armed groups fighting turf wars that have become even more deadly.
“We hoped that our fears would vanish after the unity government was created. I guess we are wrong. We are getting closer to civil war today,” said Gaza resident Nabil Zaki, 32.
In a challenge to Hamas, a 450-strong contingent of Fatah fighters that had been receiving advanced training in Egypt entered the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing with Israeli approval, Western sources said.
The United States has earmarked millions of dollars to provide training and non-lethal equipment to the Presidential Guard, which is comprised of members of Abbas’s Fatah faction and widely seen as a counterforce to armed Hamas groups.
Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz, commenting on the current surge of internal Palestinian violence in which at least 20 people have been killed since Friday, said Israel had no intention of intervening.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the violence was blocking tentative Middle East peace efforts.
Palestinian leaders renewed appeals for calm in speeches marking the annual “Nakba”, or what Palestinians describe as the tragedy that befell them when Israel became a state in 1948.
Abbas called on rival factions to “fully safeguard calm so that Palestinians can resume the path of reform and development to minimise unemployment and reduce the cycle of poverty”.
Masked gunmen ruled Gaza. Residents who risked leaving home darted across streets, shoulders hunched, to the crackle of volleys from automatic weapons.
“Today we are witnessing a new Nakba,” said Umm Mohammed, 56, a Gaza resident.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah
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