Gunmen fired in the air to protest the arrest of militiamen accused of violating a truce with Israel, the first time Palestinian security forces took action against renegades refusing to lay down their arms.
Seven militiamen were arrested this week in Gaza City and the town of Khan Younis, apparently for firing anti-tank rockets at the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom. The rocket fire injured four people.
The Palestinian security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, had assured Israel he would go after those breaking the ceasefire, including those who attacked Kfar Darom.
Late Thursday, several dozen Palestinians, led by about a dozen gunmen shooting in the air, marched in Gaza City to protest the arrests. Marchers also set off homemade grenades, but there were no clashes with police.
The ceasefire declarations by Palestinian militias last weekend set in motion steps linked to the US-backed "road map" peace plan to halt violence and set up a Palestinian state in 2005. Among those backing the truce are the Islamic militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the ruling Fatah movement of Yasser Arafat.
Touring northern Gaza on Thursday, after Israel's withdrawal four days earlier, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas denounced the shelling. "This is an act of sabotage which we cannot accept," he said.
However, Abbas has rejected an armed confrontation with militants, fearing a civil war, preferring to negotiate an end to armed attacks.
Near Rafah in southern Gaza, next to the Egyptian border, Palestinians fired an anti-tank missile and threw grenades at an Israeli army post overnight, the military said yesterday. No one was hurt.
Southern Gaza, which has been the scene of daily confrontations throughout the 33-month conflict, is a stronghold of the "Popular Resistance Committees," splinters of Fatah. The groups refuse to take orders from Fatah leaders, pledging to continue attacking Israelis.
Since the truce declarations on Sunday, Israel has pulled out of parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Bethlehem, turning them over to Palestinian security.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was upbeat on Thursday. "For the first time since I entered the office of prime minister, there is a real possibility of an end to terror and the return to normal life," he said.
Overnight, Israel released 52 Palestinians from prison, media reports said. They had been detained in a roundup in the West Bank city of Hebron following a suicide bombing in Jerusalem on June 11. The bomber came from Hebron.
However, Israeli forces arrested 12 more suspected Palestinian militants in overnight raids in the West Bank, the military said yesterday.
Releasing prisoners is a key Palestinian demand tied to their truce declaration. Israel is holding about 5,000 Palestinians.
Those freed so far had served all or most of their sentences or were never charged.
Israel's Cabinet was to discuss additional prisoner releases tomorrow. The Shin Bet security service is drawing up a list of hundreds of prisoners eligible for release, Israeli radio reports said.