Gaza, Apr 24: Tensions between the Hamas-led government and President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction flared into a shootout at the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza today, just hours after pledges to calm internal unrest.
In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Israeli security forces killed two Palestinians after firing on a car the army said was carrying wanted militants. Palestinian security sources said one of the dead men was a member of the Palestinian security forces.
The fresh clashes in Gaza came after 20 people were hurt in armed confrontations on Saturday between students and militants from Fatah and Hamas. It was the most serious internal fighting since Hamas won a parliamentary election in January.
At least four people were wounded after gunmen from Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades stormed the Gaza ministry, where they were confronted by Hamas guards, Health Ministry officials said.
An al-Aqsa spokesman denied the men were from his faction, saying they were from a Gaza clan affiliated with Fatah. Ministry officials said the gunmen were demanding the ministry pay for someone who had treatment overseas.
The guards from Hamas's Izz el-Deen al-Qassam brigades chased off most of the Fatah intruders and captured four of the gunmen, tying them up and putting them into a police car as people in the street cheered, witnesses said.
''The time has passed when our institutions and our police can be attacked. Whoever holds a gun against one of our institutions, or one of our policemen, opens himself for death,'' Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Abu Hillel said.
The violence followed the condemnation by exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal of Abbas's veto of a new Gaza security force formed by the Islamic group and headed by a top militant.
The appointment of Jamal Abu Samhadana, head of the Popular Resistance Committees which has often attacked Israel, as leader of the new Gaza police force was widely seen as an attempt by Hamas to strengthen its grip on the powerful Interior Ministry.
Abbas cancelled the decision late last week, a veto Meshaal said assisted a Western campaign to isolate the government. Meshaal has since said Hamas respected Abbas's authority.
Abbas's aides said only the Palestinian president could make decisions regarding the government.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said the Palestinian men killed in Bethlehem, which lies near Jerusalem, were wanted for attacks against soldiers and for firing on Jewish settlements.
''We had accurate intelligence on the identity of the vehicle and the forces in the area even knew the number plate of the car,'' she said, adding the men fired at troops from their car.
A Hamas lawmaker, Mushir al-Masri, condemned the killings.
''We warn that the continuation of such an escalation will lead to an explosion in the region,'' he said.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in an audiotape aired today, said Western efforts to isolate Hamas, was an example of the West's ''crusader war'' against Islam.
Referring to bin Laden's comments, a Hamas spokesman said the group wanted good relations with the West.
But the new government is battling a crippling financial crisis after Israel cut off monthly tax transfers and Western governments halted direct aid. Salaries for 165,000 Palestinian Authority employees are already three weeks late.
The Arab League said it intended to transfer 50 million dollars this week to the Authority, enough to pay about 40 per cent of the overdue salaries.
Arab League official Hesham Youssef said he knew of no banking problems that would prevent the transfer.
Palestinian officials and Western diplomats yesterday said banks were refusing to transmit Palestinian Authority funds because of the threat of U.S. sanctions.
Washington regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation.