Rival gunmen from Hamas and Fatah fought with assault rifles and missiles yesterday, killing three militants in the bloodiest internal fighting since Hamas took power six weeks ago.
The confrontations began after midnight with a spate of kidnappings and peaked at daybreak when Hamas fired a missile into a jeep with government license plates, killing two Fatah gunmen who were also members of the security forces.
The fighting was the latest sign the two sides could be sliding toward large-scale clashes. Each group has been training its gunmen for possible confrontation, and Hamas recently outbid Fatah in buying a black market shipment of 100,000 bullets.
Tensions have been rising since the Islamic militant Hamas ended Fatah's four-decade control of Palestinian politics with a victory in January parliament elections.
Hamas and moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah have been wrangling over power, particularly over control of the security forces, and the friction has been compounded by a growing financial crisis, a result of Western economic sanctions against the Hamas-led government.
Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas failed to resolve their differences in weekend meetings.
The violence yesterday began before dawn in the farming community of Abassan in southeastern Gaza. Hamas tried to kidnap a Fatah member, apparently to settle an old score dating back to the January election, said Fatah spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa.
The two sides exchanged fire, and a Hamas militant was seriously wounded, Abu Khoussa said.
The shooting prompted a series of kidnappings in which Hamas seized three Fatah members, and Fatah briefly captured four Hamas militants. The captives were eventually released after negotiations.
However, the Hamas member wounded in the initial firefight later died of his wounds, and his death triggered a new round of fighting with assault rifles and submachine guns.
Gunmen hiding in fields exchanged fire across Abassan's main road, sending people ducking for cover.
At one point, Hamas gunmen ambushed Fatah militants driving along the main road in two jeeps with red Palestinian Authority license plates. One jeep was hit by a shoulder-held missile and the second was riddled by bullets.
Ten gunmen were wounded, including one who was in serious condition.
Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Hamas-led government, urged the two sides to resolve the dispute.
Abu Khoussa said he held Hamas responsible, accusing the group of inciting against Fatah.
Rival Palestinian groups have managed in the past to pull back from the brink of civil war. However, in the increasingly heated climate, it could be difficult to put a lid on fighting.
In other developments yesterday, Israel said it is in the process of mapping unauthorized construction in the West Bank, according to a court document. The Israeli government has stalled for three years on its promise to the US to take down wildcat settlement outposts.
Critics attacked the latest initiative as an Israeli delay tactic, noting that just a year ago, a government-commissioned report detailed 105 unauthorized outposts. Almost all of them remain intact, and other unauthorized structures have been erected in the West Bank since.
A deposition filed by the Israeli military with Israel's Supreme Court said the state would draw up a plan to dismantle the unauthorized construction it is mapping. Although it said the mapping would take four months, it gave no timetable for taking down the wildcat buildings.