Gunfire erupted inside Gaza's main hospital yesterday between Hamas-led police and the family of a dead fighter loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, fueling fears of more violence.
At least three people were injured in the firefight inside Shifa hospital hours after pro-Fatah protesters stoned the home of a minister in the Hamas-led government.
Hamas guards outside the home of Refugees Minister Atef Odwan fired into the air to clear the crowd, the latest in a wave of pro-Fatah protests over unpaid wages and stalled unity government talks.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian government announced yesterday that work was to come to a halt in all ministries after its headquarters in Ramallah were stormed by protesters on Sunday.
The government "has announced the suspension of work in government institutions because of the attacks against the seat of government ... and attempts to kidnap officials," spokesman Ghazi Hamad said.
These developments came after heavily armed Hamas militiamen attempted to break up anti government protest, sparking gunbattles across the Gaza Strip that killed eight people in the worst internal Palestinian violence since Hamas took power.
Militants from the opposition Fatah group retaliated on Sunday by torching the Palestinian Cabinet building in Ramallah, attacking Hamas offices throughout the West Bank, kidnapping a Hamas minister and threatening a mass strike.
The spasm of violence dampened already fading hopes for the creation of a national unity government between the groups that could end crippling economic sanctions.
The fighting continued throughout the day and sent schoolchildren and other civilians in downtown Gaza City fleeing for cover.
"This is forbidden in Islam, we are in the holy month of Ramadan," said Majed Badawi, 33, who managed to escape after his car was caught in the crossfire.
"It's a shame on Hamas, who call themselves real Muslims, and a shame of Fatah as well. Why are they fighting and over what? We are victims because of both of them," he added.
Late on Sunday, Interior Minister Said Siyam had ordered the Hamas militia off the streets.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called on Egyptian diplomats in Gaza to hold a meeting with security commanders on both sides to resolve the violence, Egyptian officials said.
Violence between Fatah and Hamas loyalists plagued Gaza throughout the spring, but largely abated when Israel launched an offensive in late June after Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier.
Israel's army chief, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, said on Sunday the military was considering another ground offensive. Hours later, Israeli tanks, bulldozers and troops moved into northern Gaza. The army said the operation was aimed at preventing rocket fire from militants.
Looking to a possible new Israeli offensive, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas urged Palestinians to end the internal violence "in the face of a serious escalation from the occupation forces."
Haniyeh spoke with President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah by telephone and called for joint action to end the fighting, Haniyeh's office said.
But in a televised speech, Haniyeh also defended the Hamas militiamen, saying they acted lawfully in trying to break up the protests.