GAZA CITY // Hamas security forces and a Gaza clan battled with mortars and machine guns today, leaving at least four people dead and 35 wounded in the most violent round yet of Hamas' weeklong crackdown on political rival Fatah. Loud explosions and gunfire could be heard throughout the day across Gaza City. Hamas said it arrested 15 people, including 10 who had tried to flee disguised as women, and confiscated weapons. In retaliation, masked Fatah gunmen in the West Bank seized a university professor with links to Hamas as he drove in his car and threatened to execute him unless Hamas halts the Gaza raid.
With today's violence, the current round of Hamas-Fatah tensions threatened to spiral out of control. The confrontations began last week when a car bomb killed five Hamas militants in Gaza. In response, Hamas seized more than 200 Fatah supporters in the biggest crackdown since wresting control of the territory from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, in June 2007. Fatah, which runs the West Bank, retaliated by arresting scores of Hamas activists. Today's fighting began under heavy morning fog when Hamas police took up positions in Gaza City's Shijaiyeh neighbourhood, a stronghold of the Hilles clan, which is allied with Fatah.
Hamas accused the Hilles clan of hiding suspects in last week's bombing, an allegation denied by Ahmed Hilles, a Fatah leader and senior clan member. Hilles said Hamas police cut off electricity as they launched the raid, but said his clan would defend itself. "You have to decide: Either be trampled under Hamas' shoes, or stand in dignity," he said in a phone interview, as gunfire crackled in the background. Islam Shahwan, a Hamas police spokesman, said several clan members tried to flee disguised as women. Three Hamas police and a member of the Hilles clan were killed. During the fighting, a rocket hit members of a family, wounding several people, said Mr Shahwan. He added that Hamas security men had stormed several high-rise buildings and arrested rooftop snipers, as well as gunmen and wounded fighters. "We are determined to continue the raid until we arrest all those involved," Mr Shahwan said. "This is just the beginning." Hamas officials shut down a radio station affiliated with the small Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, saying that the station was reporting "lies and rumors and inciting sedition," the group said. A senior Abbas aide in the West Bank, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, denounced Gaza's Hamas rulers as "the new Mongols". But in act of goodwill, Hamas released 10 Fatah leaders after Egyptian mediaton. *AP