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Clashes Between Rival Palestinian Factions Test Ceasefire

22 December 2006

Rival Palestinian factions have clashed again in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. At least one person was killed and six wounded. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, a breakdown of law and order in the Palestinian territories has exacerbated a political deadlock over early elections.

A fierce gun battle erupted on the streets of Gaza City between militiamen from the ruling Islamic militant group Hamas and the rival Fatah faction. The fighting spilled over to the West Bank, where Fatah gunmen opened fire as hundreds of Hamas activists prepared to hold a rally in the town of Nablus.

The clashes tested a three-day old ceasefire aimed at averting a Palestinian civil war.

Moderate Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas has been locked in a deepening power struggle with Hamas, since the group took power nine months ago. Hamas has been crippled by international sanctions, imposed because of its refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Gun battles erupted a week ago, when Mr. Abbas declared early elections in a bid to topple the Hamas-led government. Hamas described the move as a coup d'état.

Israeli analyst Mordechai Nissan says Hamas and Fatah have been on a collision course since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat two years ago.

"They're engaged in their own infighting which they're unable to stop. And they're unable to stop it, it seems, because basically once Arafat left the scene, when he died, they've been unable to unite around a leader who they all accept. Mahmoud Abbas is not of the stature of Arafat," he said.

Nissan says there is also a major difference in ideology.

"And therefore, the endemic conflict between Hamas, being Islamic, and Fatah, being more national, has broken out quite expectedly," he said.

Leaders of both sides have appealed for calm. But the political impasse over early elections remains with no solution in sight. And that is fertile ground for more violence.

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