RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday called for the overthrow of Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers, his first explicit call that they be removed.
"We have to bring down this bunch that took over Gaza with armed force, and is abusing the sufferings and pains of our people," Abbas said in a speech in Ramallah.
The Palestinian leader, who has set up a separate government in the West Bank, previously had not gone beyond demanding that Hamas apologize for overrunning Gaza and reverse the takeover.
In his speech, Abbas lashed out against "the outlawed gangs affiliated with Hamas in Gaza City," where forces loyal to the Islamic group opened fire on a mass rally by his Fatah movement on Monday. Eight civilians were killed and dozens were wounded in the strongest Fatah challenge to Hamas rule since the Hamas takeover.
Hamas also rounded up more than 400 Fatah activists, and on Wednesday announced media restrictions and plans to curb public gatherings.
Discontent in the strip is growing, in part because Israel's closure of Gaza's borders immediately after the Hamas takeover has shut down many factories, cost tens of thousands of jobs and driven up prices.
Hamas' efforts to cement its grip on Gaza coincide with efforts by Abbas and Israel to bridge differences ahead of a high-profile summit in the U.S. this month. The conference is aimed at relaunching peace talks and bolstering Abbas in his struggle with Hamas, which does not recognize his mandate to negotiate.
Abbas said in his speech that his government was "working relentlessly" to make the gathering a "decisive-launching pad" for establishing a Palestinian state.
But he demanded that Israel halt all settlement construction, release Palestinian prisoners, and end its assassinations of Palestinian wanted men.
Abbas spoke on the 19th anniversary of the Palestinians' declaration of independence at a meeting in Algeria. The declaration has not brought about the establishment of a Palestinian state, but is regarded as important because it implicitly recognized Israel's right to exist.
In northern Gaza, the Israeli army opened fire Thursday on a car carrying militants, killing two and wounding five other people, militants and a health official said.
The attack in the town of Beit Hanoun came after gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militants fired rockets toward towns in southern Israel. The group identified the dead as its own.
The military said ground forces struck a rocket squad about to fire at Israeli towns.
Al Aqsa said it fired 10 rockets by midday.
Israeli aircraft later struck an electricity transformer, causing no casualties. But power was knocked out to about 5,000 people in the area, according to Said Hamad, from the Beit Hanoun town council.
The army said it was going after the same rocket squad hit in the original attack.