Nine Palestinians were killed and dozens hurt in battles in Gaza City between forces of the rival Hamas and Fatah movements on Saturday, prompting Israel to open its border to fleeing Fatah members.
The fighting, which lasted most of the day, was sparked when Hamas security forces tried to arrest suspects thought to be behind a July 25 bombing that killed five Hamas militants and a little girl on a Gaza beach.
Hamas blames Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas for the attack, but the secular group denies any involvement. Over the past week the two sides have engaged in tit-for-tat spates of arrests.
Hamas said two of its men were killed and medical officials reported seven more dead, mainly civilians, in Saturday’s firefights that broke out around a house belonging to the influential pro-Fatah Helis clan in the Shujwa neighbourhood of Gaza City.
More than 90 people were also wounded, including seven reported to be in a serious condition, the medical sources said.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri charged that members of the Helis family and other unidentified associates had “fired mortar rounds at the Hamas police as well as a rocket at Gaza City” from inside the Shujwa house.
Several members of the Helis clan “are responsible” for the deadly July 25 bomb attack and Hamas is determined to round up the suspects, Abu Zuhri told AFP.
But Adel Helis, a Fatah leader, denied clan members opened fire on Hamas.
“These are lies. We never fired rockets or mortar rounds. Hamas is the one committing crimes. We have asked all the Palestinian factions, Islamists and nationalists, to use their influence so that these crimes cease,” he said.
Clan leader Ahmad Helis told AFP that Hamas militants “laid siege to our house, firing mortar rounds… targeting our women and our children.”
The two main Palestinian factions have been deeply divided since Hamas expelled Abbas’s security forces from Gaza in a week of bloody street battles in June 2007, cleaving the territories into rival entities.
Abbas himself called Ahmed Helis “to express his support and denounce the Hamas attack,” according to a statement by Abbas’s office.
The Palestinian president also told Helis that “Hamas’s attacks undermine my call for national dialogue between Palestinian factions.”
Shortly after the fighting subsided, dozens of Fatah members, including Ahmed and Adel Helis, fled to the Nahal Oz crossing with Israel in a bid to escape to the West Bank city of Ramallah, home to Abbas’s headquarters.
Israel allowed a total of 150 Palestinians who put down their guns to cross as a “humanitarian measure,” an army spokesman said. The wounded were taken to hospital and the rest were transported to Ramallah.
Israel’s Magen David Adom medical services treated six Palestinians for serious wounds and three more who were lightly injured, spokesman Zaki Heller said.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak authorised the rare measure following a personal request from Abbas, Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad and Egypt, a senior defence official told AFP.
Israel closed all of its crossings with Gaza following Hamas’s violent takeover, but has agreed to allow basic products in under a June ceasefire.
Palestinian militants fired several mortar rounds towards the Nahal Oz crossing in violation of the truce, with four falling inside Israel and eight on the Palestinian side, an army spokesman said.
Senior Hamas official Said Siam said at a late evening press conference that during the operation Hamas forces arrested four Fatah members involved in the July 25 explosion and that explosives and weapons had been seized.
Hamas detained more than 300 people, mostly Fatah members, after the July 25 bombing. Fatah responded by arresting Hamas militants in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Also on Saturday, Hamas ordered the closure of a radio station linked to the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Gaza City, a spokesman for Voice of the People said.