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Palestinian Factional Fighting Flares

Gunmen of the rival Palestinian Hamas and Fatah movements traded fire Monday, killing two Fatah fighters and wounding at least 10 people despite an Egyptian-brokered agreement to end the violence that is jeopardizing a power-sharing deal between the two sides.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Monday accepted the resignation of his interior minister following the latest wave of factional fighting in the Gaza Strip, officials said.

Interior Minister Hani Kawasmeh had offered his resignation two weeks ago to protest the deteriorating security situation in Gaza, but Haniyeh had tried to persuade Kawasmeh to stay on.

After a new wave of fighting left six people dead in 24 hours, Haniyeh on Monday accepted the resignation, said two officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to the media. Kawasmeh recently offered a security plan aimed at bringing law and order to Gaza, but the plan was never carried out.

The latest clashes erupted in several locations in the coastal strip and brought the toll to six dead and 52 wounded in 24 hours, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Among the dead were two employees of a Hamas-affiliated newspaper who were shot after being pulled out of a taxi at a Fatah roadblock Sunday, according to Hamas. If confirmed, this tactic would mark a further escalation and likely provoke more execution-style killings.

Israel's Security Cabinet, meanwhile, decided to hold off on a major military operation in Gaza. The decision came after talks Sunday over how to respond to intensifying rocket fire from Gaza and the army's warnings that Hamas is stockpiling weapons smuggled into the strip.

Instead, the army was given permission to step up targeted attacks against those firing the rockets, said Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation.

"The decision to go into Gaza, to occupy Gaza is one that can be taken at any time but we have to understand its significance," Peretz told Israel Radio. "We, the government, need to examine, what are the consequences of each and every action and ... (whether) we want to play into the hands of those extremists who are interested in bringing about escalation."

In Gaza, an Egyptian security delegation brought Hamas and Fatah together Sunday night and got them to agree to withdraw their forces and exchange captives.

But hours later, Fatah said Hamas attacked one of its offices in Gaza City, firing automatic weapons and hurling hand grenades. Hamas said Fatah men attacked a roadblock manned by its militiamen.

Hospital officials said two Fatah men were killed and 10 people wounded, from both sides.

Masked fighters from the sides could be seen in the streets of Gaza City. At midday, the fighting had subsided, but the atmosphere remained tense. Hundreds of masked men from the pro-Fatah National Security force took up positions around President Mahmoud Abbas' headquarters and patrolled the area on foot and in Russian-made armored vehicles.

Abbas, of Fatah, was at his main headquarters in the West Bank.

Hamas and Fatah set up a coalition government in March, with the goal of ending months of bloody clashes between forces loyal to the two sides. But a new round of violence followed last week's deployment of 3,000 police in Gaza from forces loyal to Abbas, over Hamas objections.

The latest escalation began Sunday, when a shooting ambush blamed on Hamas killed a Fatah militant commander and his bodyguard.

In a firefight that followed, Suleiman Ashi, 26, a reporter for the Hamas-affiliated Palestine Daily, was pulled from a taxi by Fatah gunmen and shot, according to the newspaper. He and another employee of the paper wounded in the incident died later of their wounds.

The Palestinian Journalists Union condemned the attack.

In other developments:

  • Masked gunmen abducted a well-known religious scholar from Hamas Sunday as he returned from evening prayers at a local mosque in Gaza City. He was released after three hours, Hamas said. His abduction set off a wave of kidnappings by both sides, security officials said. At least 14 people were snatched, a Hamas official said.
  • Jordan's King Abdullah called off what was to have been a rare visit to the West Bank Sunday. The king hoped to push an Arab peace plan and show support for Abbas, a moderate and leader of Fatah. The monarch, who was to have arrived by helicopter, cited low clouds and poor visibility for the cancellation. The Abbas-Abdullah meeting is to be rescheduled in coming days, said aides to the king and Abbas.
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