Toll Grows from Factional Fighting in Gaza

Fighting in Gaza prompts concern that a Palestinian unity government could collapse. The death toll after four days of conflict is put at 30 or more, with dozens of others wounded.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Gaza, there's heavy fighting again today as gunmen from the two main political groups go after each other. It's a stark vision of how disunited is the unity government of the radical Hamas and Fatah. Palestinian officials say the death toll in four days of factional fighting is at least 30.

Today, Israel entered the conflict, firing missiles into the Gaza Strip and killing at least four people. At the same time, Hamas fired more rockets into Israel.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

LINDA GRADSTEIN: An estimated 200 Hamas gunmen surrounded the house of top Fatah security official Rashid Abu Shbak in Gaza City early this morning.

(Soundbite of mortar fire)

GRADSTEIN: They fired mortars at the house before storming in. Abu Shbak and his family were not at home, but the gunmen killed six bodyguards. In a separate incident, a senior officer in Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' presidential guard was killed in clashes with Hamas and a nurse traveling in an ambulance died when she got caught in crossfire.

Palestinians say the streets of Gaza are deserted except for bands of gunmen. Residents in several high-rise apartment buildings in Gaza City said Hamas gunmen took over their apartments and forced them to leave. The director of the United Nations relief agency in Gaza, John Ging, says the situation is rapidly deteriorating.

Mr. JOHN GING (Director of Operations, United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Gaza): The situation is desperate, miserable and now very dangerous. With this fighting of the last few days it has become very dangerous. And we're very worried, as are the entire population here, about what is happening and of course where or when it will all end. That's the big question.

GRADSTEIN: Some Fatah officials say Abbas and all Fatah cabinet ministers should resign from the Palestinian unity government. The Palestinian interior minister stepped down earlier this week, saying he was not given enough authority to fight the growing lawlessness and chaos in Gaza.

The unity government was formed in February after a previous wave of factional fighting in Gaza left dozens of Palestinians dead. But the deal on the government never made clear who would be in charge of the Palestinian security services. BBC correspondent Ali Maqpul(ph) says the fighting seemed to be spreading.

Mr. ALI MAQPUL (BBC Correspondent): However this fighting started, it seems now to be about revenge, reprisal attack followed by reprisal attack, and there's no indication of this easing up. There's no indication there's anyone who has been able to have any influence on the people on the ground. It's the gunmen and the militants who are in charge of the situation now, really not the politicians.

GRADSTEIN: The factional fighting began on Sunday but escalated sharply yesterday when Hamas gunmen killed at least nine Palestinian officers of the presidential security force, associated with Fatah, and wounded dozens of others. That attack took place near the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel. One of the wounded men, who did not give his name, told Al-Jazeera television that some of the Fatah men were killed in cold blood.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GRADSTEIN: They shot at us for an hour and many of us were wounded, the security official said. Then they approached the wounded men and shot them. They thought I was dead, and then they left.

At the same time, Hamas gunmen fired at least eight rockets today at southern Israel. Last night, a woman was seriously wounded when a rocket hit her house. Israeli officials say Hamas is trying to divert attention from the factional fighting in Gaza by drawing Israel into the conflict.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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