By Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel, Haaretz Correspondents, Haaretz Service and Agencies
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas' Damascus-based political leader Khaled Mashal agreed to an immediate cease-fire late Friday, after two days of factional violence left 25 Palestinians dead, Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said.
But firefights soon erupted in Gaza City. Fatah gunmen stormed the Agriculture Ministry, ransacking offices and stealing computers, servers and official documents, said Agriculture Minister Mohammed al-Agha. Gunmen also took position on the ministry's rooftop and began firing, al-Agha said.
Gunbattles also erupted around Fatah-dominated National Security headquarters and near the Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold that had been the site of fierce gunbattles on the previous two days. Hospital officials reported four civilians and one National Security officer wounded in the first few minutes of the battle.
The streets of Gaza City are still almost empty on Saturday and the UN said it would not reopen its schools in Gaza on Saturday after a mid-year recess, as scheduled, because of the fighting - a decision that kept nearly 200,000 students at home.
Shortly after the ceasefire was announced on Friday, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the Hamas-led Interior Ministry and mortar bombs landed inside the main security complex of forces loyal to Abbas.
Hamas and Fatah officials said Friday afternoon that they had agreed in principle to a new cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, but needed more meetings to work out the details of a pullback of forces.
In spite of the cease-fire, anonymous gunmen shot at the car of General Burhan Hamad- the head of the Egyptian security delegation in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian sources reported that eight Fatah representatives were wounded by shots fired at them upon their arrival to cease-fire talks late Friday night.
Seventeen Palestinians, including four children, were killed Friday in clashes between Hamas and Fatah. Some 245 have been wounded in the fierce fighting.
"We, the leaders of the two groups, agreed with God's help on a cease-fire," said Nizar Rayan, a regional Hamas leader, after the meeting. The measures that will be taken on the ground will be discussed in the next few hours.
The deal was announced after a meeting at the Egyptian embassy. Fatah spokesman, Abdel Hakim Awad, confirmed the agreement was reached in principle.
Meanwhile, Abbas announced he would meet with the head of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshal, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in another effort to negotiate a national unity government agreement, an aide to Abbas said Friday.
The meeting will take place Tuesday, the official said. The two leaders met in Syria last month, but failed to reach agreement on forming a government.
Abu Rudeineh also confirmed the meeting.
Friday's fatalities included Abu Awed Salim, the commander of the Fatah-affiliated General Intelligence Services in the northern Gaza Strip.
Israel Radio reported the death of a woman who was killed when a bullet pierced her home.
Meanwhile, fire engulfed the Islamic University, a Hamas stronghold in Gaza City, on Friday. Hamas officials accused Fatah forces of trying to burn down the university and demolish it with bulldozers. Heavy smoke from the fires blanketed parts of Gaza City.
Hamas militants blew up a pro-Fatah radio station in Gaza on Friday, ambulances were caught in the crossfire and gunmen exchanged heavy fire in deserted streets.
Fifty officers from Abbas' presidential guard surrounded the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry on Friday morning and exchanged fire with Hamas gunmen guarding the building. Outside of Gaza City, Hamas militants launched mortar shells at a Fatah training base.
The roads of Gaza were nearly empty, sealed off by makeshift roadblocks of rubble and garbage. Only masked security officers, some with hand grenades clipped to their ammunition vests, were visible in the streets.
The resurgent violence forced thousands of Gazans to huddle in their homes to escape the crossfire. In a symbol that the two sides had returned to open warfare, their respective radio stations stopped playing songs of national unity and broadcast songs about armed struggle and fighting the enemy.
Overnight, rival gunmen fought in the streets with mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy caliber machine guns.
Fatah: Iranian weapons experts were helping Hamas
During the fighting Thursday, Fatah forces stormed the Islamic University and arrested seven people it said were Iranian weapons experts working in the service of Hamas. An eighth Iranian weapons expert apparently committed suicide during the raid.
Israel Radio reported that, according to Fatah, at least some of the Iranians were chemical experts.
The Fatah forces apprehended some 1,400 firearms and missiles found at the site.
However, neither the names nor photographs of the Iranians have been released, and Israel Radio reported Friday that the Arab-language media has been cautious in reporting the Fatah charge out of concern that it could be part of a Fatah-Hamas propaganda war.
In addition, Fatah spokesmen refused to confirm the report on Friday, and as of yet there has been no confirmation from any Palestinian Authority official.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Friday that he couldn't confirm whether Iranians had indeed been caught in a Fatah raid, but said such a move would be consistent with Iranian activity.
"I can't confirm for you this specific detail about the capture of the Iranians in Gaza," Sneh told Israel Radio. He said he could confirm that in addition to funding weapons for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Iran "is also very intensively involved in training and upgrading the professional capability of the terrorist groups in Gaza."
Hamas official Islam Shahawan denied the Fatah charge and warned Fatah to stop attacking the university, or face "serious consequences."
The Fatah forces also confiscated some 1,400 firearms and missiles found at the site.
Egyptians blame Hamas for collapse of truce
In an unusual move, the head of the Egyptian security delegation in the Gaza Strip - General Burhan Hamad, who has led the mediating efforts between the two factions - blamed Hamas on Thursday for the collapse of the cease-fire.
The truce, which was meant to put a stop to the internecine fighting that has taken over the Gaza Strip in recent weeks, collapsed a mere two days after it was signed. At least six Palestinians were killed in the fighting between the two factions Thursday, and more than 60 others were wounded.
Meanwhile, Palestinians fired three Qassam rockets at the western Negev on Thursday night, causing no injuries or damage.
The incident that is presumed to have sparked a renewed cycle of violence in the Gaza Strip occured when Hamas Executive Force gunmen attacked two trucks, which they believe held weapons being delivered from Egypt for use by the Presidential Guard, loyal to Abbas.
Egypt's Hamas said that "the side that attacked the trucks [Hamas] is the one responsible for the bloodshed."
The attack against the trucks that crossed into the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom crossing, which is under Israeli control, occurred at a time when Hamas and Fatah delegations were holding talks at the Egyptian delegation's offices in Gaza.
Executive Force members attacked the trucks with machine gun fire, and rockets, as they passed near the Al-Bureij refugee camp. Two of the Force 17 (Abbas' Presidential Guard) were killed in the attack.
A long battle ensued, in which four more Palestinians were killed. Five of the dead were members of Fatah-affiliated security organizations: Three were members of the Presidential Guard - Arafat Halibi al-Muslah, 24, Murad al-Tala, 23, and Muhammad Hatib; one came from the ranks of the National Security service - Akrami Ghnein, 23; and another from Military Intelligence - Osama al-Sinani, 25.
The identity of the sixth fatality was not immediately ascertained, but it is believed to be a child.
Following the attack against the trucks, the situation rapidly deteriorated in most parts of the Gaza strip.
In the northern strip, Hamas gunmen attacked a Military Intelligence headquarters and set it on fire.
In central Gaza strip, heavy fighting took place close to the headquarters of the Preventive Security service, in Tel al-Hawwe, and mortar shells landed close to Abbas' office in the Gaza Strip.
The hospitals in the Gaza Strip received more than 70 people seeking medical attention as a result of the fighting.
Senior Fatah officials said that Hamas was not interested in a cease-fire, and while representatives of the two factions were holding talks on the formation of a national unity government, members of the military wing of the organization were carrying out attacks.
Hamas countered by arguing that the "revolutionary wing" (hinting at Mohammed Dahlan, their Fatah arch-enemy in the Gaza Strip) in Fatah is continuing in its attempts at a coup against the Hamas government.
A senior Hamas source claimed that the weapons were bought with U.S. funds given to Abbas' office, and was delivered to Egypt on a ship of one of the Gulf states, where the cargo was unloaded at the port of Nuweiba. From there, the arms were delivered by truck to the Gaza Strip.
The Hamas source said that the deliveries began on Tuesday and there were many more trucks waiting to cross over.
Both Israeli and Fatah sources have rejected these claims.