GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Hamas gunmen backed by police came to the rescue of the new Palestinian health minister — a top Hamas official — after angry gunmen raided his office Sunday and sparked a shootout that left three people wounded.
The shootout was the latest explosion of violence in the Gaza Strip and it marked the first time a Hamas Cabinet minister turned to his group's gunmen to help restore order. It also underscored Palestinians' growing dissatisfaction with the Hamas-led government as it confronts a crippling financial crisis.
The shootout erupted hours after Hamas and Fatah officials agreed to work to end tensions between the rival movements. A fierce power struggle between the sides has sparked clashes and mass protests in recent days.
Hamas blamed Fatah for the violence on Sunday, but Fatah officials denied the gunmen were affiliated with the party.
The fighting Sunday came a day after Health Minister Bassem Naim announced that he was cutting $2 million from the monthly health budget to help alleviate the financial crisis by halting payments for patients to get treatment abroad. The state of Gaza's health care system is poor, and Palestinians routinely travel to Israel and other countries for complicated procedures.
On Sunday, a group of men, some of them armed, whose relative needed treatment abroad came to Naim's office and asked him to authorize the trip, Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Radi said.
Naim's bodyguards called for backup from Hamas and the two groups engaged in a brief shootout that wounded three people, witnesses and Palestinian security forces said. One wounded man bleeding from his leg lay outside the office compound before he was evacuated in a taxi.
Palestinian police and masked Hamas militants surrounded the building. When they tried to approach, the gunmen inside fired at them. After a 45-minute standoff, the police and the militants retook the building, arresting three of the gunmen. Naim left surrounded by 10 Hamas militants.
The incident highlighted the growing chaos in the Gaza Strip, which was worsened by the growing rivalry between the Hamas-led Cabinet and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party.
Radi said the gunmen who threatened Naim were affiliated with Fatah, which Fatah officials denied.
Abbas has been trying to shore up his already considerable powers in an effort to marginalize Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel and is listed as a terror organization by the United States and the European Union.
After the Hamas-led Cabinet took office last month, Abbas tried to take control of all Palestinian security forces — including those under the Interior Ministry — angering Hamas, which responded with a plan to form its own shadow army made up of militants and headed by a top fugitive Israel has been hunting for years.
Abbas promptly vetoed that plan, and Hamas' political chief, Khaled Mashaal, accused him of cooperating with Israel and the United States and "plotting against us."
Mashaal's comments sparked angry demonstrations and violence throughout the West Bank and Gaza on Saturday.
The two sides traded gunfire and hurled stones and firebombs, and Fatah leaders warned the violence could deteriorate into civil war. Mashaal said his comments were misinterpreted.
In a meeting that ended early Sunday, Hamas and Fatah officials said they would take steps to end the fighting.
"The two movements have agreed to call on our Palestinian masses to stop all displays that might lead to tension," Fatah official Maher Mekdad said, reading a joint statement. "They agreed to work together to strengthen national unity."
But no agreement was reached on the flashpoint issue of control of the security forces, participants said. Outside the meeting, which was mediated by Egyptian security officials, thousands of Fatah supporters shouted anti-Hamas slogans.
Despite the meeting, protests continued Sunday, with more than 4,000 people — Palestinian security officers and Fatah supporters — marching in the West Bank town of Jenin, chanting anti-Mashaal slogans. Dozens of security officers and Fatah gunmen fired weapons into the air.
In Nablus, dozens of Fatah-affiliated gunmen briefly stormed the municipal building and tried to shut down the offices Sunday. After the mayor, a Hamas official, refused to close the building, a Fatah lawmaker intervened and diffused the confrontation.
After the Hamas Cabinet took office last month, many Western nations froze desperately needed aid to the Palestinian government, causing a financial crisis. The government is nearly three weeks late in paying March salaries to its 165,000 employees and Hamas officials say they do not know when they will have the needed money.
The government was further isolated after Hamas officials defended an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on April 17 that killed eight civilians.
Israeli interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the attack completed "the transformation of the Palestinian Authority to a terrorist authority."
"The international community will now understand that we don't have a partner," he told his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, according to participants.
Hamas officials said their government remained committed to forming an army of thousands of militants.
Interior Minister Said Siyam said Saturday that he would pursue his plans to create the force — despite Abbas' veto — and would meet with its designated head, fugitive Jamal Abu Samhadana, to discuss when he would take over his new duties.
In an interview with the London-based Sunday Telegraph, Abu Samhadana said the force would form the "nucleus of the future Palestinian army."
"We have one enemy," Abu Samhadana said. "They are Jews ... I will continue to carry the rifle and pull the trigger whenever required to defend my people."