Palestinian gunmen fatally ambushed a Hamas-linked Islamic judge and militant commander as he arrived at a courthouse early yesterday, escalating factional tensions in the Gaza Strip.
The drive-by shooting came two days after the killing of the three young children of a Fatah-allied Palestinian intelligence officer, sparking renewed conflict between the rival Hamas and Fatah factions. The violence has reduced chances for a unity government between the sides and pushed them closer to civil war.
Palestinian security officials said the man killed was Bassam al-Fara, 30, a judge at the Islamic court and a Hamas member who belongs to the largest clan in the southern town of Khan Younis.
In a text message sent to reporters, Hamas openly blamed Fatah for the killing.
A Hamas spokesman condemned the killing and promised to bring the perpetrators to justice.
"This is an ugly crime committed against one of the field commanders of Hamas' military wing and one of the prominent figures in Hamas," said Fauzi Barhoum, giving no further details about al-Fara's militant activities.
"Hamas is not going to forget the blood of its members. It is going to pursue and bring to justice those who were involved in today's crime," Barhoum added.
Fatah spokesman Tawfik Abu Khoussa rejected the accusations. "We condemn all acts of anarchy whatever may be behind them, we call on the brothers in Hamas to stop firing accusations before the investigation," he said.
Witnesses said the four gunmen calmly waited for al-Fara outside the courthouse, eating breakfast at a food stand. When al-Fara emerged from a taxi, three of the men grabbed him and forced him onto his knees, while the fourth pulled out a weapon and shot him. The attack left the sidewalk riddled with bullet holes.
Dozens of people gathered at the scene and Palestinian security set up roadblocks. Hamas militants also set up their own roadblocks throughout town, searching for the shooters.
Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah and the Islamic militant Hamas have been locked in a power struggle since Hamas ousted Fatah in parliamentary elections. More than 40 Gazans have died in battles between the two groups since Hamas took power in March.
Seeking to end the standoff, Abbas has been trying to persuade Hamas to join Fatah in a national unity government. But the talks broke down late last month. Tensions heightened after Abbas announced plans over the weekend to call early elections, drawing Hamas accusations that he is plotting a coup.
The latest round of violence was sparked by Monday's killing in Gaza City of the three young sons of Baha Balousheh, an intelligence officer and Fatah loyalist.
Hamas denied accusations that it carried out the killing.
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