KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip – Gunbattles broke out in three locations in the Gaza Strip on Sunday between police loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and rival militiamen of the Hamas-led government. Two bystanders were moderately wounded.
On Saturday, the government deployed all 3,000 Hamas militiamen across Gaza to prevent widening protests against unpaid government salaries. Their deployment heated up frictions between the two sides in Gaza, where guns are plentiful and the rivals are engaged in a fierce power struggle.
Since Hamas ousted Abbas' Fatah Party from power earlier this year, the Palestinian government hasn't been able to pay police and other civil servants who provide for one-third of the population, because of international sanctions meant to force it to recognize and stop attacking Israel.
Protests have multiplied as the poverty deepens.
In the southern city of Khan Younis on Sunday, dozens of armed men from both sides faced off outside the Bank of Palestine, where police had gathered to protest the overdue salaries.
According to a policeman who participated, protesters were standing outside the bank peacefully when Hamas militiamen ordered them to leave the area. He said Hamas militiamen opened fire at the protesters, who responded by shooting in the air. Two civilian passersby were moderately wounded.
In Gaza City, a gunbattle erupted after militiamen tried to prevent security personnel and civilian protesters from blocking a street where two bank branches are located. No one was wounded, but both sides remained in a tense faceoff on either side of the street.
Elsewhere in Gaza City, a 15-minute gunfight broke out between militiamen and bodyguards assigned to protect a senior security official. Each side accused the other of starting the fray; no one was hurt.
"We are going to beat with iron fists all those elements who are trying to sabotage the election process of our people, those who are trying to destroy our public properties and close the streets," said Islam Shawhan, a spokesman for the militia. "We are not going to hesitate to take action against any of them."
Dozens of Palestinian police, waving their weapons in the air, streamed out of a police station in Gaza City and marched to a street near the parliament building. Police cordoned off the building weeks ago after protests began heating up.
In an effort to end the economic embargo, Hamas officials have tried to form a coalition government with Fatah, but the efforts have foundered because of Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist.