GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gunmen allied with Hamas and Fatah clashed at a West Bank mosque and in Gaza Strip streets on Friday, as violence spread to areas of the Palestinian territories normally untouched by factional strife.
Hamas accused a Fatah leader of orchestrating the previous day’s attack on Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh — and a Hamas politician appeared to call for the Fatah strongman’s assassination. Leaders of both groups have warned that the violence threatens to degenerate into civil war.
The clashes in Gaza City and the West Bank town of Ramallah marred celebrations Friday marking the 19th anniversary of Hamas’ founding. However, the Islamic militant group pushed ahead with its rallies, and about 70,000 loyalists gathered at a stadium in Gaza City, cheering wildly, sobbing and firing in the air when Haniyeh arrived flanked by more than 50 armed bodyguards.
“We joined this movement to become martyrs, not ministers,” Haniyeh declared in a fiery speech, referring to Hamas loyalists’ willingness to die for the Islamic cause.
He then left for an emergency session of the Hamas-led Cabinet, called to discuss the escalating unrest.
The fighting Friday in the normally peaceful city of Ramallah began when Hamas supporters tried to march toward the town center, where Fatah-allied police had deployed to prevent a planned Hamas celebration.
Police formed a cordon around a Hamas mosque to prevent those inside from marching, then beat them with clubs and fired their rifles in the air when the activists tried to leave. The marchers fought back, throwing stones and bottles at the police, some of whom fired into the crowd.
Thirty-two people were wounded by stones and gunfire, hospital officials said.
In Gaza City, masked Hamas gunmen waged battle with Fatah-allied police near a security post.
The showdown, a block from the home of Mohammed Dahlan, broke out shortly after Hamas accused the Fatah strongman of orchestrating the attack on Haniyeh on Thursday at the Gaza-Egypt border terminal.
The latest round of fighting erupted Monday with a drive-by shooting that killed the three young sons of a Fatah security official and continued Wednesday with the gangland-style execution of a Hamas judge.
On Thursday, Haniyeh rushed home from a trip abroad to try to quell the violence.
But Israel ordered the Rafah crossing closed to keep Haniyeh from bringing in an estimated $35 million he had collected abroad to help alleviate the Palestinian financial crisis. Israeli officials said Haniyeh could return to Gaza without the money, which it said was to be used for terror attacks. Maria Telleria, spokeswoman for European monitors at the crossing, said Haniyeh left the funds in Egypt.
Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told Israel’s Army Radio that government officials made the right decision not to let Haniyeh bring the money into Gaza, adding that if Haniyeh had been killed, “I wouldn’t put up a mourning tent.”
While Haniyeh was delayed at the crossing, angry Hamas militants stormed the border terminal and fought with security forces stationed there who are loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah’s leader.
When Haniyeh finally crossed, unidentified men began firing toward him. One of his bodyguards was killed and his son and 26 others were wounded.
At the bodyguard’s funeral, Khalil al-Hayeh, head of the Hamas bloc in parliament, told mourners that Dahlan was trying to instigate a coup against the government and appeared to call for his assassination.
Al-Hayeh exhorted the crowd to “get us the plotters of the coup.”
“We will, we will,” the crowd replied.
Dahlan said the allegations were an attempt by Hamas leaders “to mask their sweeping failure to manage Palestinian political and social life.”
Various other Hamas officials accused Palestinian collaborators with Israel, Abbas and the U.S. of involvement in the shooting.
The violence came amid a political deadlock between Abbas and the Hamas-led Cabinet and parliament following failed efforts to form a unity government. Abbas hoped such a government would end crippling international economic sanctions imposed on the Palestinian Authority after Hamas won January elections.
Hamas, responsible for dozens of deadly suicide bombings in Israel, is listed as a terror group by the U.S. and European Union.
Abbas, a relative moderate, was to address the Palestinians on Saturday on his plans for ending the impasse and was expected to threaten early elections. A call for new elections, which Hamas says is illegal, would likely further inflame the situation.