GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – A rally of more than 250,000 Fatah supporters ended in mayhem Monday, with Hamas police opening fire and protesters hurling rocks or running for cover. Seven civilians were killed and dozens were wounded in the violence between Palestinian factions.
The demonstration in a Gaza City square, marking the Nov. 11, 2004, death of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, posed the strongest challenge to Hamas rule in Gaza since the Islamic militant group seized the impoverished territory by force in June.
The march started out peacefully after Palestinians in buses, on foot and on donkey carts streamed into a large sandy lot by the Mediterranean. Waving yellow Fatah flags, the crowd cheered and whistled as the movement’s remaining leaders in Gaza – most had fled to the West Bank in June – spoke hopefully about a comeback.
But the rally quickly descended into chaos and bursts of gunfire as the crowd was beginning to leave. Fatah stone-throwers clashed with armed Hamas policemen.
“It was a big mess, and everyone was running for cover,” said a wounded 24-year-old demonstrator who would give only his first name, Farouk, for fear of repercussions by Hamas.
In one confrontation, an Associated Press reporter observed about 30 Hamas policemen – some posted on the rooftop of a government ministry, others on the streets below – firing heavily for about 10 minutes. Some appeared to be shooting over the heads of Fatah stone-throwers while others were firing randomly.
The Fatah supporters pelted Hamas troops with stones, surging forward even as they were met by heavy bursts of gunfire. One Hamas policeman dropped to one knee for better aim.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri held Fatah responsible for the violence, saying Fatah gunmen had been posted on high-rise buildings overlooking the rally to shoot at Hamas police officers as a planned provocation.
Fatah denied the charge, saying no armed men were allowed at the rally. An AP reporter saw 10 Fatah gunmen being turned away at the start of the rally.