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Clashes between groups of Palestinians raise fears of a civil war

RAMALLAH, West Bank—Palestinian police officers allied with the Fatah political party attacked a small group of Hamas supporters in Ramallah on Friday, a rare confrontation in the West Bank that ratcheted up tensions and fears of civil war.

Four civilians were critically injured. Also Friday, masked members of the Islamic militant group Hamas waged a short gun battle with Palestinian police in the middle of Gaza City.

The intensified clashes came a day before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses Palestinians. He's expected to call for new elections to end the power struggle between Fatah and Hamas. Some Palestinians said that the security forces' attack on civilians on Friday in Ramallah will weaken Abbas.

Hamas, which has controlled the government since winning elections in January, has refused to recognize Israel and accept past peace agreements. Since it took power, the Palestinians have been under economic siege. Many Palestinians want Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government so that funds from outside can flow to it again. Both sides have failed to agree to the conditions.

Friday was the 19th anniversary of the founding of Hamas. In Ramallah, Hamas supporters left a mosque in an authorized celebration march toward the center of town. Many of them, as well as other civilians who prayed at the mosque, later found themselves in the hospital.

"When we walked out after the prayer we found the police, the National Guard, the Preventative Security, Force 17, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades had surrounded the area," said Abdulhakim, a 20-year-old university student who feared giving his last name. Speaking at Ramallah Hospital next to the bed of his injured friend Rateb Quzmar, Abdulhakim said that the Fatah security forces randomly attacked civilians, many of whom weren't Hamas supporters.

"Everyone began running around the side of the building," he said. "I ran to the left, and the forces opened fire."

At least 31 people were injured, many from bullet wounds. Only one injured person was from the security forces.

Security officer Mohammad Abu Firas said the security forces "tried to act neutrally," but were provoked by stone throwers. "The security members tried to control the march with batons, but the provocations from the Hamas members continued, which led to military clashes," he said.

In Gaza City, a four-minute shootout took place on Friday amid heightened tensions and a wave of cross-faction killings in the Gaza Strip this week.

Fatah-allied Palestinian security forces on Thursday battled with the security force guarding Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh as Haniyeh tried to enter the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing. One of his bodyguards was killed and his son was injured.

At a massive anniversary rally in the Gaza Strip on Friday, Hamas accused Fatah of trying to start a war. Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan accused Fatah lawmaker and strongman Mohammed Dahlan of attempting to assassinate Haniyeh.

But Palestinian analyst and political commentator Muhannad Abdulhamid said a civil war is "still far away."

"Palestinian society is homogenous. We don't have the sectarian and ethnic divides that countries like Iraq have," Abdulhamid said.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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