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Rival factions clash in West Bank

Abbas acts to quell violence between Hamas and Fatah

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Clashes between rival Palestinian factions spread to the West Bank yesterday as armed followers of President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement ransacked and set fire to the offices of the Hamas-led government and briefly abducted a Hamas lawmaker in Ramallah.

Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, ordered security forces to restore order after the series of clashes, which began in the Gaza Strip earlier in the day and then moved to the West Bank amid fears they might escalate into broader violence.

In Gaza, Hamas fighters attacked a building belonging to Preventive Security, a major police force dominated by Fatah. Hamas militants in the town of Rafah also opened fire with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, sparking a shoot-out that left a bystander dead and 15 other people injured. The attacks occurred after a Hamas militant was killed during a shoot-out between Hamas fighters and Preventive Security members in Rafah.

Later in the day, hundreds of gunmen loyal to Abbas fired shots and trashed the offices of the Hamas-led Cabinet in the West Bank city of Ramallah, igniting a fire in the Cabinet building that was quickly put out. The group, including many members of the Palestinian security forces, also opened fire on the Palestinian parliament building in Ramallah. No injuries were reported.

Armed Fatah men later destroyed furniture and computers in a Hamas office in Ramallah and, separately, kidnapped Khalil Rabai, a Hamas legislator, from a street in the same city. Rabai was released unharmed a little over an hour later and taken by authorities to Abbas's presidential compound in Ramallah. Abbas was in Gaza City at the time.

Following news of Rabai's abduction, mosques in Gaza aired calls for Hamas followers to take to the streets in protest.

In a telephone interview, Rabai said he was kidnapped by gunmen in a car as he walked with two other Hamas legislators. Rabai said the men, who identified themselves as members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militia tied to Fatah, covered his head with his jacket and beat him while berating him.

Rabai said they left the other two men behind and took him to a secluded area in Ramallah before releasing him.

The clashes were the latest spasms in a months-long power struggle between Hamas, the radical Islamic group that gained control of the Palestinian government after winning parliamentary elections in January, and the once-dominant Fatah movement led by Abbas.

Sporadic shoot-outs between gunmen affiliated with Hamas and Fatah, mostly in the Gaza Strip, have left more than a dozen people dead in recent weeks.

The violence came as Hamas stepped up its efforts to block an Abbas-sponsored referendum on a Palestinian statehood plan that would implicitly recognize Israel. Yesterday, Hamas, which rejects Israel's right to exist, moved its battle against the referendum to the parliament, where it holds a hefty majority.

But after a sometimes fiery debate, lawmakers agreed to postpone a vote on whether to hold the referendum in hopes that Abbas and Hamas leaders can reach agreement on a shared political program that might dampen the tensions.

Abbas, a relative moderate, has set a territory-wide vote for July 26. He has cast the referendum as a path toward renewing negotiations with Israel and ending an international aid boycott that has hobbled the Palestinian economy since Hamas took over in March.

The referendum, based on a document crafted by well-known Palestinians jailed in Israel, calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.

But leaders of Hamas label the measure as an attempt to undermine their fledgling government. Hamas lawmakers, with 74 of the parliament's 120 seats, argued yesterday that the referendum measure is illegal because Palestinian law contains no provisions for such a vote.

Abbas has left open the possibility of reaching agreement with Hamas on a unified program and canceling the vote.

Hamas militants on Friday called an end to a 16-month informal cease-fire after an explosion that it blamed on Israel killed eight civilians on a beach in Gaza. The group fired a number of Kassam rockets into southern Israel on Sunday, seriously injuring an Israeli man and drawing warnings from some Israeli leaders of possible harsh retaliation, including strikes against top Hamas political figures.

Israel's defense minister, Amir Peretz, ordered the military to hold off on a broad air assault in Gaza unless the rocket salvoes continue, according to Israeli media. More than 15 additional rockets were launched from the Palestinian side yesterday, and Hamas claimed responsibility for four of the salvoes. Islamic Jihad said it had launched the others.

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