Gunfire killed at least seven people and wounded 80 on Monday at a Fateh memorial rally for Yasser Arafat attended by more than 200,000 supporters of the defeated faction in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.A sea of yellow Fateh flags had filled a Gaza square for the biggest gathering held by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbasâ€™ secular faction in the territory since Hamas Islamists routed its fighters there in June.
The rare Fateh rally broke up in chaos after gunfire rang out and grew into what Hamas described as battles with the rival groupâ€™s fighters, forcing even members of the crowd who had initially stood their ground to bolt for cover.
Dr Muawiyah Hassanein, head of Gazaâ€™s emergency medical services, said seven people, all civilians, were killed. He said 80 people, including several Hamas security men, were wounded.
Fateh officials accused Hamas forces of opening fire from the nearby Islamic University. Hamas said its men had come under attack from Fateh gunmen and returned fire.
The emotional memorial event for Arafat had given Fateh a rare chance to assemble its supporters in the Gaza Strip. Abbas, preparing for a US-hosted conference with Israel later this month on Palestinian statehood, has rejected new dialogue with Hamas until the group relinquishes control of the Gaza Strip.
Later, a Fateh official said Hamas security forces had arrested several of its activists, including Mohammad Nahal, a senior Fateh political leader in north Gaza.
Hamas has banned opposition rallies since its takeover of the territory but any move to prevent a remembrance ceremony for Arafat, the iconic leader who died on November 11, 2004, would have been widely unpopular among Palestinians.
Ahmed Qureia, chief Palestinian negotiator in talks with Israel, compared Hamasâ€™ rule in Gaza to the Israeli occupation. â€œThe policy of silencing the other side will not win,â€ he said at a ceremony in Ramallah.
Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told a news conference Fateh was to blame for the dayâ€™s â€œdeaths and crimesâ€ in Gaza. Huge murals of Arafat in his trademark Arab headdress, and a smaller picture of Abbas, had provided a backdrop for the event which organisers said was attended by more than 250,000 people. A Reuters witness said between 200,000 and 250,000 attended the rally.
Fateh nationalist songs blared from loudspeakers as many in the crowd expressed their longing for the days of Arafat, regarded by Palestinians as a symbol of unity. â€œAbu Mazen [Abbas] is not like Arafat but he is our president now and we respect him. We urge him to end Hamas occupation,â€ said a teenage participant, who gave his name only as Khaled.