Gunmen clash with police across Gaza

RAMALLAH — Fateh-affiliated gunmen stormed government buildings, briefly took over a power plant and blocked a vital road in the Gaza Strip on Monday, as the coastal strip lurched from humanitarian crisis to security chaos.

Earlier in the day, Israel briefly opened the main goods crossing into Gaza, after repeated warnings both from Palestinian officials and international agencies that supplies of bread and other staples were running out. The Karni crossing was, however, shortly shut again allowing through only six trucks carrying flour and sugar.

The bloodiest of five confrontations Monday took place at Gaza’s government compound. Three dozen gunmen demanding jobs charged the complex, firing in the air. Some burst into the finance ministry, while others began firing at random, wounding a doorman outside the adjacent foreign ministry before Palestinian police pulled up in jeeps and began exchanging fire with the attackers.

Police eventually stormed the ministry, arresting three gunmen from the Fateh-affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. In total, two gunmen and two security officials were wounded in the firefight.

Dozens of gunmen also exchanged fire with members of the security forces at Palestinian police headquarters.

Earlier in the day, gunmen blocked a road leading to the main Israel-Gaza crossing point, briefly took over Gaza’s power plant and entered a military hospital.

About 35 gunmen traded fire with policemen who tried to remove them from the road leading to the Erez crossing point. Two gunmen and a policeman were wounded.

Two dozen gunmen also briefly infiltrated Gaza’s power plant elsewhere in Gaza, exchanging fire with police and wounding two, officials said.

No one was hurt at the military hospital near Khan Younis.

Hamas’ designated foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar, blamed the violence on Fateh mismanagement.

“We are going to deal with it by the proper means in order to solve these problems,” Zahar said.

The gunbattles on Monday were the most intense in months, and came a day after Hamas’ designated prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, handed Abbas a proposed 24-member Cabinet dominated by Hamas activists.

Of the 24 portfolios, 19 are held by Hamas members with some independents and technocrats. One woman and a Christian were included.

Abbas has withheld immediate acceptance of the government, but aides have said they believe he will not block it.

He has to call a special session of parliament for a confidence vote before the government can take office. Aides have said that will happen after Israel’s parliamentary elections on March 28.

The heavy Hamas representation in the new government — necessary after Hamas failed to woo coalition partners because the movement refused to bow to pressure that it recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept interim peace accords — is likely to see Western funding of the Palestinian Authority dry up.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, however, said the new government would manage.

“The greater the challenges are, the more the people will support Hamas against hostile Western positions,” Abu Zuhri said.

In Brussels, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the new government would be judged on its actions.

“We are leaving the door open for positive change but we have to make clear we cannot go soft on our principles,” she said.

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country holds the EU presidency, said the organisation, which the EU considers a terrorist group, “will have to decide which road to take” for the sake of the well-being of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Hamas must meet international demands.

“We don’t want to punish the Palestinian people for their votes at all,” Straw told reporters.

“On the other hand the Palestinian people need to say to any Hamas government that democracy involves responsibilities and above all a responsibility not to get involved in violence.”

The Karni crossing, meanwhile, was shut, according to the Israeli army after it received a “security alert.” Karni is the main goods crossing point from Israel into Gaza and has been closed for the greater part of the last three months.

On Sunday, one senior UN official warned of a full-scale humanitarian disaster, and the UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) announced it had run out of food reserves.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said the crossing was opened for two hours before being shut again.

“The crossing closed because of a security alert,” she said.

Salim Abu Safiya, the Palestinian security chief for crossings into Gaza, said Karni was open for 30 minutes. “The Israelis need to stop using this silly method and these silly alerts… It’s a drop in the sea of the needs for Gaza,” Abu Safiya told Reuters, referring to the shortages in Gaza.

He said Karni was supposed to open again on Tuesday. “But after what happened today I can’t trust the Israeli promises any more,” Abu Safiya said.

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