Rival Gaza factions close ranks to fight Jewish state

ABASSAN, Gaza Strip — In this unassuming farming village east of Khan Younis, Palestinian fighters stood in the olive orchard Saturday hoping for a shot at the Israeli armour digging in 300 metres away.

When an Apache helicopter swooped in overhead and fired a burst at the fighters in headbands — some black, some green and others yellow — hunkered down shoulder to shoulder behind a weathered stucco water tower. “Who’s fighting now, Hamas or Fateh?,” one observer asked. A balding middle-aged activist turned around. “There is no Hamas or Fateh now,” he said. Abassan, a usually sleepy community of olive, tomato and fig growers, witnessed some of the most violent infighting.

It was when the governing Hamas movement and the ousted Fateh met head-to-head in a bitter struggle for power.

But now the slowly building Israeli military operation to release a soldier captured by fighters in the Gaza Strip has given the one-time enemies a common rallying cry.

Israeli armoured vehicles responded to Palestinian shots with automatic gunfire before the gunships were called in, and the fighters also saw reinforcements rush to the scene of the fighting with rocket launchers and mines.

According to Israeli military sources, armoured vehicles had been combing the area for explosive devices.

“All the fighters are in one trench together now,” said Abu Abed, toting an ammo vest and a Kalashnikov assault rifle, surrounded by fellow fighters from his Izzeddine Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamist Hamas movement.

“Past differences have been forgotten in front of the Israeli aggression.” He stood just metres away from a squad of national security fighters, the Fateh-dominated force Hamas once accused of trying to bring down its government.

“Now we are one,” said Abu Mohammed, who sported yellow officer’s stars on his olive fatigues. “Defending the homeland is more important than all the titles, names and factions,” added the Fateh fighter.

Israel has launched a massive military operation in the war-torn territory following the June 25 abduction of an Israeli soldier. The 19-year-old corporal is believed to be alive but his location is unknown.

His capture by a coalition of Islamist factions has boosted the morale of radical fighters who complain that Israel has continued to take out targets in Gaza since its pullout from the territory nine months ago.

Hamas’ routing of the long-ruling Fateh Party of Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in January enflamed rivalries among the countless armed factions in the Gaza Strip.

The internecine violence reached a pitch on May 8 in Abassan during a pitched battle between Hamas and Fateh fighters firing rocket-propelled grenades at each other.

The clashes left three men dead and 11 wounded, and prompted Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to urge a truce and call for “Palestinian blood to be spared”.

While differences remained obvious between Hamas and Fateh on the means of solving the political crisis engendered by the soldier’s capture, the various armed factions appeared to have closed ranks Saturday in the face of a common foe.

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