GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Dozens of masked Palestinian gunmen took over election offices in the Gaza Strip, exchanging fire with police and demanding spaces for the ruling Fatah Party's military wing on a list for Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.
The clashes came hours before a Wednesday afternoon deadline for submitting the list and as Fatah's two main factions — party veterans and a young generation of activists — announced an end to an internal rift that had threatened to bolster the electoral prospects of the militant Hamas. After intense negotiations, young guard members said Fatah will submit a single, unified list for the elections.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas praised the party's decision to unify and urged Palestinians to come together.
"What's important is that we go through the election process first united but also ... with sportsmanship and a spirit of transparency and fairness so that we can achieve the true democracy that we all want," he told reporters in Gaza.
In Gaza City on Wednesday, more than 60 gunmen stormed the main election office, exchanging fire with some 500 security forces who rushed to the scene, surrounded the building and set up roadblocks. The gunmen left the area after the reinforcements arrived. One policeman was wounded in the leg by gunfire and whisked away in an ambulance.
In Rafah, gunmen surrounded the election office, but Palestinian police prevented them from entering. In Khan Younis and Deir el-Balah, gunmen made it into the buildings. It was not clear whether the gunmen had left those buildings yet.
Such activity by gunmen has become increasingly common in the West Bank and Gaza in recent months, underscoring growing lawlessness in the Palestinian territories. Wednesday's violence highlighted the rising chaos within Fatah itself, adding the demands for participation of the Fatah-affiliated armed group, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, to an already volatile mix of competing interests.
The Palestinian Interior Ministry condemned the mayhem, saying in a statement that attempts to take over election offices are "national crimes."
An Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades leader in Khan Younis, Abu Zakariya al Assouili, said his group tried unsuccessfully to contact Abbas to push for greater participation in the party list.
"We're objecting to a Palestinian election that does not represent a Palestinian vision," he told The Associated Press. "We want the base to dictate our fate, not America or Israel."
Mohammed Dahlan, a senior Palestinian official and leader of Fatah's young guard, predicted that Wednesday's healing of the rift in the party would augur well for stability in the Palestinian territories.
"Now Fatah is unified in one list and its Ministry of Interior has the responsibility of implementing law and stopping chaos," he said.
Two weeks ago, the young guard — led by the jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti — broke off from the party to protest Fatah's slate of candidates and submitted its own list. Eager to bring them back, Abbas agreed to redraw the party's list of candidates, giving top positions to younger activists. Both veterans and young activists had warned they would break away unless their candidates featured prominently on the voting list.
Dahlan said the agreement reached Wednesday puts Barghouti at the top of a unified Fatah list.
Also Wednesday, Israeli jets blasted a Palestinian militant group's base in Lebanon hours after rockets hit the northern Israeli border town of Kiryat Shmona. There were no injured reported, but some property was damaged.
In their deepest strike into Lebanon in 18 months, the Israeli planes attacked a base south of Beirut of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a small, Syrian-backed group that has been fighting the Jewish state for decades.
The Israeli military said it viewed such attacks with "extreme severity" and held Lebanon responsible.
Meanwhile, Israeli planes dropped leaflets in Gaza warning residents against entering a new no-go zone in northern Gaza, the army said. Anyone who enters the zone risks getting fired upon, the leaflets said. Israel decided to enforce a buffer zone in northern Gaza in an attempt to halt militant rocket fire on Israel.
Israel's recent withdrawal from Gaza has enabled militants to reach launching grounds closer to Israel, bringing southern towns within rocket range.