Palestinian security forces and Hamas militants exchanged fire in a crowded Gaza City neighborhood on Friday, a sign that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas may finally be cracking down on militants, as Israel and the U.S. have demanded.
But the Israeli military didn't wait: It launched an air strike later Friday on a van carrying Hamas militants and a cache of homemade rockets in a Gaza City street, killing four people.
The strike destroyed the van, scattering shards of metal and body parts hundreds of yards away. The van was filled with homemade rockets, Palestinian security officials said.
Militants have fired volleys of rockets and mortars against Israeli targets in recent days. All told, militants killed six Israelis this week, five in a suicide bombing and one in a rocket attack Thursday.
The Israeli military said the helicopter missile attack targeted senior Hamas weapons manufacturers on their way to launching more rockets at Israeli targets.
Also Friday, two Hamas members were killed in an explosion in the West Bank, and area residents said Israeli helicopters had fired three or four missiles at the house. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
The battle between Palestinian police and Hamas killed at least two people — possibly bystanders, a teenager and a child — and wounded 25 in some of the worst fighting among Palestinians in recent years. Palestinian troops were placed on high alert.
The tough Palestinian police action Friday suggested a possible shift in Palestinian policy, though Abbas has been reluctant in the past to confront the militants. Palestinian security chief Nasser Yousef said Friday that his forces will "not hesitate" to restore law and order, and ordered rocket attacks into Israel to be stopped by all means.
A defiant Hamas demanded that Abbas fire Yousef, who was a top commander during the bloodiest clash between Hamas and security forces so far — a 1994 confrontation outside a mosque in which 15 Hamas supporters were killed by Palestinian police fire.
Abbas was at his Gaza City office during Friday's fighting, and it was not clear whether he would meet with leaders of militant groups in an effort to defuse tensions. Sakher Bseisso, a Cabinet minister involved in contacts with Hamas in the past, said the militants were leaving Abbas little choice but to crack down.
"Hamas is trying to impose its control on the ground," he said.
Friday's clashes erupted in Gaza City's Zeitoun neighborhood, after security forces searched for militants suspected of firing rockets at Israeli towns. Militants torched a police station, and set a police armored personnel carrier and three jeeps on fire. Thick black smoke from burning tires rose from the neighborhood, as masked Hamas gunmen stood guard outside the police station.
After heavy exchanges of fire Friday morning, police pulled out of Zeitoun, while masked gunmen took up positions on street corners and rooftops. Hundreds of civilians were in the streets, watching the fighting.
If fighting spins out of control, it could endanger Abbas' rule and overshadow the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza next month. Israel has said it would not pull out of Gaza under fire.
The cease-fire was the main achievement of Abbas' rule. As long as it held, he was able to defend his policy of coopting the militants, rather than confronting them. However, with the truce increasingly shaky, he is increasingly being pushed to take action.
The confrontations between police and militants began in northern Gaza on Thursday evening, when police said they tried to stop a Hamas squad from firing rockets at nearby Israeli towns. A firefight erupted, and five Hamas militants were wounded.
In response, dozens of Hamas gunmen attacked a Palestinian police post in a different area, firing machine guns, hurling grenades and setting two police cruisers on fire.
When Palestinian police arrived, the militants ran off, some shooting in the air.
The Israeli strikes came in response to a rocket attack on Nativ Haasara, an Israeli communal farm just outside Gaza. A rocket crashed through a porch roof and killed Dana Glakowitz, 22. Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a group linked to Hamas' Fatah movement, both claimed responsibility.
The militants said they were retaliating for Israeli military operations. Earlier this week, a Palestinian police officer and a militant were killed by army fire. The army raids came after a suicide bomber from the Islamic Jihad group killed five Israelis in an attack in the coastal city of Netanya.
After the fatal rocket attack on Thursday, David Baker, an official in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, charged that the Palestinian Authority was responsible because of its "refusal to fight terror." He added, "We will not allow our citizens to be murdered, and if the Palestinian Authority doesn't take necessary steps to prevent terror, we will."
Hamas has said it is honoring the cease-fire but reserves the right to retaliate for perceived Israeli violations. Israel has renewed its operations against Islamic Jihad, responsible for the Netanya bombing.