NABLUS, West Bank – Tensions between Palestinian Authority police and militant groups erupted into violence Friday as Palestinian gunmen opened fire at a police station, sparking a gunfight that left three people wounded.
It was the second serious clash between Palestinian authorities and armed groups this week, underscoring the delicate task that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas faces as he tries to rein in militants and restore law and order in the West Bank.
Abbas has been trying to persuade armed men to lay down their weapons while resisting calls from Israel and the international community for a crackdown. Pressure has increased on the Palestinian leader to take tougher action since a Palestinian suicide bomber from the West Bank killed five Israelis in Tel Aviv last weekend.
The gunmen belonged to al Awda, a small militant group affiliated with Abbas’ ruling Fatah (news – web sites) party. Representatives of the group said they acted in response to police attempts to arrest one of their members who was driving a stolen car. But a police spokesman said the group was upset that one of its members had been beaten while in police custody.
Witnesses said at least 13 gunmen took up positions outside the police station on Friday afternoon and began shooting, prompting police to return fire. Hospital officials said three people were wounded in the clash, one seriously.
“I heard loud noises and gunfire,” said Mohammed Zohel. “I thought the Israelis had gone into the police station, but later I saw it was gunmen fighting the police. It is a real war and very frightening.”
Abbas tried to play down Friday’s incident, saying Israel’s continued presence in Palestinian population centers has hindered his ability to take action. Israel agreed at a Mideast summit last month to pull out of five West Bank towns, but the handover was frozen after last week’s suicide bombing.
“We hope that Israeli will withdraw soon from these cities so that we can control security in these cities,” Abbas said outside his home in Ramallah. “As long as the Israeli army is in the Palestinian West Bank, there will be breeches and we will deal with it.”
Earlier this week, tensions between the Palestinian Authority and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a larger militant group linked with Fatah, sparked a confrontation in the nearby town of Jenin.
Zakariye Zubeydi, a militant who is seen by residents as the ruler of Jenin, was irate that the Palestinian interior minister had come to the town without his permission and opened fire on a building where he was holding meetings.
Interior Minister Nasser Yousef ordered Zubeydi arrested, but quickly backed down.
While Abbas was trying to unify the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news – web sites) faced divisions within his ruling Likud Party as he pushed forward with his plan to evacuate the Gaza Strip (news – web sites) and four settlements in the West Bank this summer.
On Thursday night, Likud’s central committee challenged Sharon again by voting to urge the party’s lawmakers to support a national referendum on the withdrawal plan. Sharon opposes a referendum.
The central committee’s action did not threaten the pullout because there is no parliamentary majority for a referendum. But Likud rebels could translate their opposition into parliamentary muscle by voting against a budget that Sharon needs to pass by the end of the month to remain in power.
If he fails to pass the budget by March 31, he must resign and call elections — making the budget the ultimate test of the pullout plan.
A poll commissioned by the Haaretz daily and published Friday showed that large numbers of Israelis support the proposed withdrawal.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents in the poll, conducted by the local Dialogue firm, said they would vote in favor of the plan if a referendum were held, with only 28 percent saying they would not.
The poll also found that 70 percent of respondents say Sharon will continue dismantling settlements in the West Bank after the summer “disengagement” is over.
Methodology and sampling errors were not published in Friday’s newspaper. Other polls have shown about two-thirds of the people back the pullout.
Meanwhile, in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, a 6-month-old baby and two 14-year-old boys were wounded by an old explosive device the teen-agers were playing with.