Palestinian Interior Minister Resigns as 2 Die in Fighting Between Hamas, Fatah

The Palestinian interior minister stepped down Monday, accusing leaders of thwarting his efforts to halt a new wave of violence that is threatening the survival of the new coalition government.

The departure of Interior Minister Hani Kawasmeh was a major setback for the government, which was formed in March by rival Fatah and Hamas parties to end months of factional violence.

Six Palestinians were killed and 52 wounded in street battles since Sunday, in the deadliest violence since the power-sharing deal. Hundreds of masked men patrolled the tense streets of Gaza City, taking up positions around government buildings and other sensitive locations. One gunbattle erupted near the headquarters of the pro-Fatah National Security force.

The sides selected Kawasmeh — a career civil servant with backing from Hamas — as a compromise candidate for running the Interior Ministry, the top security post. His resignation highlighted the deep rifts over who controls the security forces. Hamas and Fatah had put off dealing with the explosive issue, and Kawasmeh's resignation and the renewed fighting made a compromise even more elusive.

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Kawasmeh threatened to resign two weeks ago to protest the violence and lawlessness plaguing Gaza. After earlier rejecting the resignation, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas accepted it on Monday, officials said. The minister said he learned of Haniyeh's decision on television.

At a news conference, Kawasmeh angrily accused both Haniyeh and the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, of failing to support him.

Kawasmeh recently proposed a security plan to restore law and order. But the plan — which called for reforms and coordination among the numerous Palestinian security forces — never got off the ground.

"From the beginning, I faced obstacles that robbed the ministry of its powers and made my position empty without authority," he said. "I told all the concerned parties, including the president and the prime minister, that I must have full authority to be able to carry out my full duties."

Officials said Haniyeh would take control of the Interior Ministry until a replacement for Kawasmeh is found. The Cabinet was discussing the matter on Monday.

In the latest fighting, Hamas and Fatah gunmen traded fire in Gaza City early Monday, killing two Fatah fighters and wounding at least 10 people despite an Egyptian-brokered agreement to end the violence.

At midday, Hamas gunmen exchanged fire with security men at the headquarters of the pro-Fatah National Security force in Gaza City. Masked National Security men had taken up positions around the building shortly before the gunfire erupted. There were no reports of injuries.

The unity deal, sealed in Saudi Arabia, was meant to end months of fighting between the pragmatic Fatah movement and the Islamic militant group Hamas.

While fighting between the parties has largely slowed, the area remains plagued by deadly family feuds, crime gangs, kidnappings, carjackings and attacks on foreigners and Internet cafes.

Control of the Interior Ministry has been at the heart of the dispute between Fatah and Hamas. The minister oversees several security forces. Abbas controls the other security forces, and his long-ruling Fatah party has been reluctant to yield power — despite losing to Hamas in January 2006 parliamentary elections. Last year, Hamas set up its own militia, the 6,000-strong Executive Force.

The new round of violence followed last week's deployment of 3,000 police in Gaza from forces loyal to Abbas, over Hamas objections.

Palestinian political analyst Talal Oukel said the resignation would result in "more lawlessness and chaos" and was "a direct threat to the future of the national coalition."

Amid the chaos inside Gaza, Palestinian militants also have continued to fire homemade rockets into southern Israel almost daily, threatening to shatter a November truce agreement. Israel has periodically responded to the rocket fire, but held off so far on taking large-scale action.

On Sunday, Israel's Security Cabinet decided to hold off on a major military operation in Gaza. The decision came after talks over how to respond to the intensifying rocket fire and the army's warnings that Hamas is stockpiling weapons smuggled into the strip.

Instead, the army was given permission to step up targeted attacks against those firing the rockets, said Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation.

"The decision to go into Gaza, to occupy Gaza is one that can be taken at any time but we have to understand its significance," Peretz told Israel Radio.

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