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Strained relations between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah came to a head on Sunday when Palestinian Authority forces got into a shoot-out with Hamas members in the West Bank that left six dead. Sunday's eight-hour battle was the worst fighting between Palestinians since Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah two years ago. It has also raised new questions about Palestinians' ability to restart the peace process with Israel without a unity government.
During a patrol in Qalqilya, a northern West Bank town with a strong Hamas following, Palestinian police spotted armed members of Hamas. The patrol followed them to a house where a standoff ensued, according to media reports. When it ended, two senior Hamas operatives, three Palestinian police officers, and the owner of the house were dead.
The incident was followed by major protests in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip where demonstrators accused Fatah, which controls the West Bank, of collaborating with Israel. Hamas officials say that Fatah should be prepared for reprisal attacks.
A Hamas spokesperson in Damascus has called upon Palestinians to fight against the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority forces as intensely as if they were resisting the Israeli occupation, reports Haaretz, a center-left Israeli newspaper. In Gaza, a top Hamas official made similar remarks, ordering Hamas militants in the West Bank not to surrender to PA forces.
The Hamas call for internecine violence was unusual, and presumably includes the use of suicide bombings, since that is among the methods the group has sanctioned in its terror war on Israel.
Israeli security sources said the deaths of the two Hamas operatives seriously damaged one of the group's most dangerous cells in the West Bank. Israel has pressured the Palestinian forces to crack down on the Hamas cell as a way of keeping the Israel Defense Forces out of Qalqilyah.
Last Thursday, Israeli forces killed a top Hamas militant, Abed al-Majid Dudin, in an exchange of gunfire after surrounding his West Bank home. An Israeli military spokesman said he was responsible for two fatal bus bombings in Israel a decade ago.
Although the two groups had been engaged in talks held in Egypt about how to create a unity government, Xinhau reports that Hamas is now considering withdrawing from the negotiations. A Hamas spokesperson in Gaza said that the battle underscores an effort by the Palestinian Authority and Israel to "uproot" the Islamic group that rejects Israel's existence.
"We are now studying the suspension of our participation in the Cairo-hosted dialogue as part of the response to the assassination of two holy fighters in Qalqilya city in the West Bank," Salah al-Bardaweel, a Hamas spokesman, told reporters in Gaza.
Meanwhile, officials within the Palestinian Authority now say that their forces were only acting in self-defense and that it was the Hamas members who incited the violence, reports Ma'an, a Palestinian newswire. Hussein Ash-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian Authority official, told Ma'an that Hamas leaders in Gaza were wrongly inciting Gaza residents against Fatah.
The Los Angeles Times writes that the incident, along with Hamas's response, is likely to test Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been criticized as wielding only limited control. Officials close to Abbas said that this latest raid was done without the help of Israel, calling it "100 percent Palestinian."
The Palestinian operation may, however, have been a success in at least one sense as an analysis in the conservative Jerusalem Post says that it showcased the competence of Palestinian Authority forces. Given their apparent commitment to stopping militants, the Post says it may create pressure for Israeli Forces to withdraw from the area.
Sunday's operation ... came just days after Mahmoud Abbas met with President Barack Obama in Washington, where he accused Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of being an obstacle to peace.
The operation in Kalkilya [Qalqilya] is meant to reinforce that message. On the one hand, it shows the US that Abbas is serious about cracking down on Hamas. On the other hand, it is meant to pressure Israel to relinquish its control over Kalkilya to the PA.
Palestinian Authority forces receive training and support from the US and Europe to help ensure that Hamas will not be able to take over in the West Bank as it did in Gaza, reports The New York Times.
Hussein al-Sheikh, a West Bank Fatah leader, told Israel Radio: "Whoever wants now to come in and disrupt the security and order of the Palestinian residents, to have a militia here, gangs here and there and an underground below, we won't agree."