Gaza Cease-Fire Disrupted by Gun Battle

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Just two days ago, rival Palestinian factions announced a cease-fire. Now it appears to be in tatters, with Hamas gunmen and forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas exchanging fire at a Gaza hospital.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Just two days ago, rival Palestinian factions announced a cease-fire. And now that cease-fire appears to be in tatters. On one side you've got gunmen from Hamas, on the other side you've got forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Today, they exchanged gunfire at a hospital in Gaza and later on the streets of Gaza City. Several people were reported killed and there were also firefights yesterday in Gaza.

NPR's Eric Westervelt has covered this story for many months in and out of Gaza, and he joins us now. And Eric, I just want to understand, these two sides are trying to agree on how or who is going to run the Palestinian Authority? They announced a truce the other day and the ink's hardly dry before they start shooting.

ERIC WESTERVELT: That's right. The cease-fire didn't last more than a few hours. Gunfights broke out today at the city's main hospital, killing one person, wounding 12 others. Automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, Steve, were used in this incident. There was a large gun battle just a short while ago in central Gaza City that killed at least two Fatah security men and wounded some seven others, including children.

A Fatah militant last night in the Jabalya refugee camp in clashes. So rocket-propelled grenades at a public hospital, I mean there's your cease-fire.

INSKEEP: And you've also got kidnappings.

WESTERVELT: That's right. Since this latest round of internal fighting erupted we've seen a series of tit-for-tat kidnappings, including one last night of a senior Fatah official. He was eventually released unharmed, but we're told that both sides are currently holding hostages. So it appears any real lasting cease-fire would have to include some kind of agreement to exchange prisoners that have been taken in the last week.

INSKEEP: And then let's get the underlying issue here, which is who runs the Palestinian Authority, who deals with the West, if anybody. The British Prime Minister Tony Blair was in Gaza yesterday, and he supported Mahmoud Abbas' side and said the international community needs to do that as well. What can the international community do to help their guy?

WESTERVELT: Well, Blair called explicitly for a fresh infusion of money to try to help Abbas, but he didn't give details, Steve, on a price tag or a timeline on that assistance. But Abbas, it has to be said, has pretty limited political power and it's not clear how much the West can really do now. Some are saying it may be too little too late. I mean as the continued violence today shows, it's not clear Abbas has real control over any of his security forces.

Fatah lost last January's election in large part because many people started to see Fatah as corrupt and incompetent, and they didn't see their lives improving under President Abbas and they wanted a change. So now two years into his presidency and nearly a year Fatah was badly beaten at the polls, for a British prime minister to say now is really the time to get behind Abbas, some think it may be too late.

INSKEEP: And now Abbas is calling for another election. Does he have the power to do that?

WESTERVELT: Well, Hamas says he doesn't have the power to do that. Several constitutional scholars say they don't have the power to do that. Abbas has called for this vote and he says he'll move forward to try to end the stalemate with Hamas and end economic sanctions imposed after Hamas won last January's election.

Hamas, as we know, is listed as a terrorist group by the West and Israel. Abbas insists he's going to move ahead, Steve, but it doesn't appear - it's not really clear how he'll do that. Hamas and 10 other factions say they'll boycott this vote. So if he moves ahead, it looks like Fatah could be having an election with itself.

INSKEEP: Okay. NPR's Eric Westervelt, who's recently returned from the Gaza Strip. Eric, always good to talk with you.

WESTERVELT: Thanks, Steve.

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