Hamas Figure Dodges Attack; Gaza Toll Rises

A rocket-propelled grenade hits the home of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who escapes injury. His Hamas movement says it was an assassination bid by Fatah. Nearly two dozen people have died in recent factional fighting in Gaza.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Some of the fiercest factional fighting yet is raging in the Gaza Strip. It's between gunmen belonging to the two rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas. Nearly two dozen Palestinians have been killed in the fighting that now threatens to push Gaza into deeper violence.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Gaza.

(Soundbite of explosions)

ERIC WESTERVELT: Intense fighting continued throughout the night and into today as Fatah and Hamas gunmen battled for control of security centers in Gaza City. Fierce, ongoing combat is centered on an abandoned high-rise near the waterfront and the presidential security compound.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WESTERVELT: Fatah loyalists are using heavy machineguns and 27-millimeter Egyptian-made light cannons. Hamas gunmen are returning fire with rocket-propelled grenades - or RPGs - and automatic weapons. Fatah gunmen this morning fired an RPG at the home of Hamas leader and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. He was not injured.

Hamas fired several mortar rounds this morning at the presidential compound. Nearly two dozen people have been killed in the last three days alone. Muhammad Sawirki was one of the casualties. The 28-year-old was newly married. He worked as a cook and supply clerk with 417, an elite unit directed and controlled by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and Fatah leader.

Sawirki was delivering food to soldiers when he was kidnapped Sunday evening by Hamas militants as new factional clashes erupted. Around dusk, Hamas gunmen took him to the roof of the 18th floor al-Ghafari Tower - an abandoned high-rise near the waterfront - and pushed him off.

Rami Sawirki is his brother.

Mr. RAMI SAWIRKI (Muhammad Sawirki's Brother): (Through translator) We got a call from Hamas and the people who were there. Muhammad's legs had been tied together with his own belt. His hands had been tied, and they throw him off the roof.

WESTERVELT: Rami sits under a big, blue plastic tarp at the mourning tent, set up for his brother's funeral.

Mr. SAWIRKI: (Through translator) We hope that Hamas keeps on inventing new ways of killing their people, so those who believe their lies will know the truth of Hamas and how vicious they really are.

WESTERVELT: Rami says to him, Islam's core is about mercy and forgiveness. We don't want retaliation, the 35-year-old says. We don't want any more bloodshed in this civil war. But Fatah fighters were not in a forgiving mood. Sunday night, Fatah loyalists shot 24-year-old Hassan Obuganis(ph), a suspected Hamas supporter, and hurled his body up the 10-story Muhanna Tower.

The tit-for-tat high-rise killings were just the beginning of a new brutal round of internal Palestinian fighting. Last night, 417 brought out one of its few functioning armored personal carriers and blasted away with its main cannon and heavy machineguns. The target: Hamas gunmen holed up in the abandoned high-rise from which Muhammad Sawirki was thrown.

(Soundbite of gunfire and explosions)

WESTERVELT: Also last night, Hamas gunmen laid siege to the home of a Fatah leader in northern Gaza, Jamal al-Jediyan - a close aide to Gaza strong man and Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan. Hamas gunmen dragged Abu al-Jediyan into the street and shot him 45 times, according to witnesses and hospital officials.

Earlier, four people were killed when fighting erupted inside and around Beit Hanun's main hospital. Militants from both sides also stormed Gaza City's al-Shifa Hospital, prompting healthcare workers to flee in fear and to protest that Gaza hospitals had once again become combat zones.

The renewed fighting has prompted thousands of Gazans who were able to do so to flee, people such as 39-old Ali Bedouan(ph), a married father of four. Bedouan directs a management consulting firm here. He's the kind of educated entrepreneur needed someday to help rebuild Gaza. But Bedoaun says right now, he feels there is no place in Gaza for reasonable people.

Mr. ALI BEDOUAN (Resident, Gaza City): They have no voice. The voice only is for the gun machines, and this is the problem. We don't understand, really, where they are going to build a state by fighting each other. They are going to destroy themselves and our country.

WESTERVELT: European Union monitors at the Rafa border crossing in southern Gaza say in the last year, at least 30 Palestinians have left the Gaza Strip every day and did not return. The EU says that's double the daily permanent migration from the previous year.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza City.

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