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Fatah Gunmen Storm Government Buildings in Gaza

Palestinian gunmen from the ousted Fatah Party stormed government buildings, briefly took over a power plant and blocked a vital road in the Gaza Strip on Monday, creating more chaos as Hamas militants readied to take power.

Nine people were wounded in five separate firefights with Palestinian police. The violence was a foretaste of what might happen if Hamas tries to impose its will on Fatah gunmen.

Bad blood runs deep between Hamas and Fatah, and many Fatah activists — including nearly 60,000 members of the security forces — fear for their government jobs once Hamas takes power. The handover drew nearer Sunday, when Hamas presented its new Cabinet to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for approval.

The bloodiest of Monday's five confrontations took place at Gaza's government compound. Three dozen gunmen demanding jobs charged toward the complex, firing in the air. Some burst into the Finance Ministry. Others began firing at random, wounding a doorman outside the adjacent Foreign Ministry before Palestinian police pulled up in jeeps and began exchanging fire with the attackers.

An Associated Press reporter was in the Foreign Ministry at the time of the attack. Just yards away, two stray bullets hit a security guard in the legs. Other ministry employees ran for cover, pressing close to walls or hiding under tables as bullets smashed windows.

Police eventually stormed the ministry, arresting three gunmen from the Fatah-affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. In total, two gunmen and two security officials were wounded in the firefight.

Dozens of gunmen also exchanged fire with security forces at Palestinian police headquarters.

Earlier in the day, gunmen blocked a road leading to the main Israel-Gaza crossing point, briefly took over Gaza's power plant and entered a military hospital.

About 35 gunmen traded fire with policemen who tried to remove them from the road leading to the Erez crossing point, which Abbas was scheduled to use Monday morning to leave Gaza for the West Bank. Two gunmen and a policeman were wounded.

Two dozen gunmen also briefly infiltrated Gaza's power plant, wounding two policemen in a shootout, officials said.

Hamas' designated foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar, blamed the violence on Fatah mismanagement.

The gunbattles were the most intense in months and came a day after Hamas' designated prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, handed Abbas a proposed 24-member Cabinet dominated by Hamas activists.

Hamas' failure to bring Fatah or other more moderate Palestinian lawmakers into the government likely will set off painful Western aid cutbacks. The main point of contention is Hamas' refusal to compromise on its right to violent resistance against Israel and its rejection of the Jewish state's legitimacy.

Abbas is not expected to submit the list to parliament for approval before Israel's March 28 elections.

Abbas, who favors negotiating a final peace settlement with Israel, has urged Hamas to moderate its violent ideology but likely will approve the Cabinet, his aides say. He will, however, warn Hamas that its refusal to soften positions that could hurt the Palestinians' international standing.

In Paris, French President Jacques Chirac urged the international community to avoid sanctioning the Palestinians even if Hamas does not respond quickly enough to international demands. He suggested aid should not go directly to Hamas — which the European Union and United States consider a terrorist group — but instead to needy Palestinians.

The Palestinians depend heavily on international assistance, receiving about $1.3 billion last year. Western donors, who provide most of the aid, have threatened to scale back this money if Hamas does not renounce violence.

Israel reopened the main cargo crossing into Gaza for less than 30 minutes to let humanitarian aid into the impoverished strip, Palestinian security officials said. The Karni crossing has been closed for much of the past two months because of Israeli security concerns, leading to shortages of food and other goods in Gaza.

Israeli military officials said they could not confirm the opening and subsequent closing of the crossing, but they said they expected Karni to open for humanitarian aid late Monday or Tuesday.

Hamas' refusal to moderate its anti-Israel stance has led acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to formulate a sweeping plan of West Bank territorial pullbacks that he plans to carry out with or without negotiations.

On Monday, Olmert reiterated that he would change Israel's borders significantly after next week's voting, which his Kadima Party is expected to win.

The borders with the West Bank "will be appreciably different from today's borders," Olmert told Israel Army Radio.

He also reiterated plans to hold on to three major settlement blocs, where most of the 253,000 Jewish settlers live; to maintain the Jordan River Valley as a security border; and to build a controversial West Bank project between Jerusalem and the biggest settlement, Maaleh Adumim, that both the Palestinians and the United States deplore.