GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Palestinian police and Hamas militants exchanged fire in a crowded Gaza City neighborhood on Friday, and at least two people were killed and nine wounded in some of the worst fighting among Palestinians in recent years. Palestinian security forces were placed on high alert.
The escalation, set off earlier by a suicide bombing that killed five Israelis this week, is threatening to collapse a five-month-old truce. If fighting spins out of control, it could also endanger the rule of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and overshadow the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza next month.
Israel has said it would not pull out of Gaza under fire. The cease-fire has been the main achievement of Abbas.
The tough police action suggested a possible shift in Palestinian policy. Abbas has been reluctant to confront militants despite intense pressure from Israel and the United States to crack down.
The clashes erupted in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood after security forces searched for militants suspected of firing rockets at Israeli towns. Militants burned down a police station and set a police armored personnel carrier and three jeeps on fire. Thick black smoke from burning tires rose from the neighborhood.
Some of the wounded were rushed to hospitals in private cars. One young man, his shirt bloodied, was carried away by a group of people. A teenager and a child were killed in the fighting, hospital officials said, adding that the victims’ exact ages were not immediately available.
After heavy exchanges of fire, police withdrew to the edges of Zeitoun, while masked gunmen took up positions on street corners. Hundreds of civilians were in the streets, watching the fighting.
Friday’s clashes came just hours after a rocket fired from Gaza killed an Israeli woman and Israel retaliated with helicopter missile strikes on several targets in Gaza. On Friday morning, six more rockets hit in and around the Israeli border town of Sderot, causing no injuries.
Friday’s police action indicated a shift in direction. The top security official, Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, placed security forces on high alert and ordered police to prevent rocket fire with all means.
The confrontations between police and militants began in northern Gaza on Thursday evening, when police said they tried to stop a Hamas squad from firing rockets at nearby Israeli towns. A firefight erupted, and five Hamas militants were wounded.
In response, dozens of Hamas gunmen attacked a Palestinian police post in a different area, firing machine guns, hurling grenades and setting two police cruisers on fire.
Later Thursday, armed and masked Hamas men talked to reporters in Gaza City, warning that the fighting could escalate into civil war. “We shall cut off the awful hand that attacked our fighters,” one of the masked men said. When Palestinian police arrived, the militants ran off, some shooting in the air.
Before dawn Friday, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at four targets at three locations in Gaza, including buildings the army said were used for making rockets. The raids were Israel’s first concerted action against Hamas, and the most widespread since the truce. No one was hurt.
The strikes came in response to a rocket attack on Nativ Haasara, an Israeli communal farm just outside Gaza. A rocket crashed through a porch roof and killed Dana Glakowitz, 22. Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a group linked to Hamas’
Fatah movement, both claimed responsibility.
The militants said they were retaliating for Israeli military operations. Earlier this week, a Palestinian police officer and a militant were killed by army fire. The army raids came after a suicide bomber from the Islamic Jihad group killed five Israelis in an attack in the coastal city of Netanya.
After the fatal rocket attack on Thursday, David Baker, an official in Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon’s office, charged that the
Palestinian Authority was responsible because of its “refusal to fight terror.” He added, “We will not allow our citizens to be murdered, and if the Palestinian Authority doesn’t take necessary steps to prevent terror, we will.”
Hamas has said it is honoring the cease-fire but reserves the right to retaliate for perceived Israeli violations. Israel has renewed its operations against Islamic Jihad, responsible the Netanya bombing.