World and Nation

Six Palestinians Killed in Pro- Western Fatah Rally Monday

At least six Palestinians were killed and more than 100 wounded here on Monday when a rally by the relatively pro-Western Fatah movement to mark the third anniversary of the death of its founder, Yasser Arafat, ended in armed clashes between Fatah and its rival, Hamas.

Doctors at two Gaza hospitals said all of the dead and most of the wounded were Fatah supporters who had taken part in the rally.

Tens of thousands of residents of the Gaza Strip had turned out for what became the largest show of support for Fatah since the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory in June.

As Israel and the West have squeezed the strip in recent months, opinion surveys have indicated that the popularity of Hamas may be declining while that of Fatah may be growing.

After Hamas took over Gaza, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, dissolved the Hamas-led unity government, in which several Fatah ministers had served, and appointed a caretaker government made up mostly of independents in the West Bank. Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in January 2006, does not recognize the authority of the Abbas government and rules alone in Gaza.

A newly released opinion poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, an independent Palestinian organization, indicated a rise in support for Fatah at the expense of Hamas.

Forty percent of the respondents said that Fatah was the party they trusted most, while 20 percent said they most trusted Hamas. Most of the rest said they trusted no party. In Gaza, 43 percent favored Fatah, and 25 percent Hamas.

In a similar poll by the center in September 2006, Fatah and Hamas came in almost neck and neck, with 31 percent and 30 percent. (The new poll was based on a random sample of 1,200 respondents in the West Bank and Gaza, with interviews conducted in person from Nov. 3 to 6, and with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)

“Hamas has proved today that it has the military power in the Gaza Strip, but Fatah has proved that it is still alive,” a Fatah member said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the tense situation in Gaza. “Just remember the hundreds of thousands who participated today.”

Fatah officials estimated attendance at the rally at more than 250,000. The total population of the Gaza Strip is about 1.5 million.

Hamas and Fatah accused each other of starting the violence. Ehab al-Ghsein, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza, said that Fatah gunmen on city rooftops fired first, wounding four members of the Hamas police. Fatah supporters also started throwing stones at the police, he said.

The Hamas takeover of Gaza was preceded by a bloody factional war. Since Hamas routed the Fatah forces in the strip, it has tried to impose order and to subdue public displays of support for Fatah.

Hamas did not try to block Monday’s rally, in deference to the popularity of Arafat, who to many Palestinians is a symbol of national unity.

But al-Ghsein accused Fatah of trying to reignite the internal strife. “There are those who aim to bring lawlessness back to the Gaza Strip,” he said.

Hazem Abu Shanab, a Fatah leader in Gaza, rejected the Hamas version of events as “nonsense.”

“The shooting came from one side only, toward civilians who came out to support Fatah,” he said.