The attack came as Hamas-Fatah violence raged for a fourth day in the Strip, with the death toll in the internal clashes soaring to at least 41, 11 on Wednesday alone. The fighting left a cease-fire between the sides in tatters and residents of the Strip afraid to leave their homes.
Nearly 30 Qassams have rocked the western Negev since Tuesday. A woman was seriously injured and some 30 others moderately to lightly wounded in the Tuesday attacks. No new injuries were reported Wednesday, when as many as eight Qassams hit the Negev. One of the Qassams struck a house next to the Sderot home of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who was away in the north at the time.
"I can confirm that the IAF [Israel Air Force] fired from the
air in southern part of the strip," an IDF spokeswoman said without mentioning any specific target. Palestinian medical officials confirmed that the four were Hamas gunmen.
Earlier in the day, Hamas forces shot dead six bodyguards from the rival Fatah movement on Wednesday and mistakenly ambushed a jeep carrying their own fighters, killing five of them, in the bloodiest day of Palestinian
infighting since violence erupted in the Gaza Strip four days ago.
The streets of central Gaza City echoed with the rattle of gunfire, and were empty except for gunmen in black ski masks. Terrified residents huddled in dark homes after electricity to some downtown neighborhoods was cut off by a downed power line.
At mid-day Wednesday, policemen from the Fatah-allied Preventive Security
organization arrested five Hamas men and were driving them through Gaza City when the vehicle was ambushed by Hamas fighters, Preventive Security officials said.
Five of the Hamas men were killed, along with two Fatah men, they said. The exact circumstances of the incident were not immediately clear.
Hamas radio reported that a Hamas man was killed in another clash, and a nurse traveling in an ambulance was shot in the head after being caught in the crossfire, hospital officials said. Her family said she was brain dead and being kept alive by a respirator.
At least two other Fatah men were killed on Wednesday. The circumstances of their deaths had yet to be confirmed.
Hamas storms home of Fatah chief
Early Wednesday, Hamas gunmen fired mortars and pipe bombs at the home of
Fatah security chief Rashid Abu Shbak, before storming inside and killing six bodyguards, Palestinians security and medical officials said.
Abu Shbak and his family were not home at the time of the attack, but the
house was guarded by at least a dozen of his bodyguards. Dozens of
reinforcements from the Preventive Security organization, which Abu Shbak used to head, were sent in to join the fighting.
Fighting raged close to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's heavily guarded compound Wednesday morning, which was also targeted by Hamas mortar fire overnight, and the bodies of two Fatah gunmen could be seen sprawled on the street nearby. Abbas, leader of Fatah, was not present.
The new spate of violence came one day after Hamas-Fatah fighting claiming the lives of at least 15 Palestinians in the worst single day of clashes since the two parties agreed to form a unity government in February.
Abdel Hakim Awad, a Fatah spokesman, angrily accused Hamas' leadership of the attack on Abu Shbak's house. "All (Hamas) are killers from top to bottom, all are implicated," he said, charging that the Islamist group wanted to turn Gaza into a new Somalia or Darfur.
In a further response to the Wednesday killings, the spokesman of a Gaza armed wing of the Fatah movement called on Abbas and all Fatah cabinet ministers to resign immediately from the PA unity government, Israel Radio reported.
"Abu Mazen must declare a state of emergency," said the spokesman, identified as Abu Qusai, referring to Abbas by his nickname. "The unity government is a lie. There is no unity in the Palestinian people."
Earlier on Wednesday, mortars struck near Abbas' office but caused no injuries. The salvo followed a grenade attack at a Hamas position at the Interior Ministry in Gaza.
Gunmen shot and wounded a top Egyptian official in Gaza on Wednesday as he tested whether a shaky ceasefire deal between feuding Fatah and Hamas loyalists was holding, a Palestinian security official said.
The Egyptian was shot in the hand as he walked along a Gaza street with the Palestinian cabinet secretary Ghazi Hamad of Hamas and a Fatah official, in a bid to see whether the armed rivals were sticking to the truce agreed on late Tuesday.
The Egyptian was among a team involved in mediating the truce and trying to put an end to the fighting.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said late Tuesday that the factions had agreed to a new cease-fire, and would pull their gunmen off the streets at midnight. The accord was the third such agreement in as many days.
Most of the dead were members of the Presidential Guard affiliated with Fatah, killed in an incident that took place near the Karni cargo crossing.
Hamas gunmen riddled a Fatah police jeep with gunfire at close range, killing eight. The incident took place after the shelling of a police camp as Fatah reinforcements were speeding to the area.
Hamas had attacked a training camp of the Palestinian National Security force, another pro-Fatah organization, using machine guns, mortars and missiles.
Sources said the vehicle overturned and the Hamas gunmen approached and executed the wounded at close range. "It was unbelievable. May God help us," said an eyewitness working in a nearby factory.
Two Palestinian policemen who fled toward the border fence were mistakenly identified by Israel Defense Forces troops as militants trying to attack the Israeli side of the Karni crossing.
The IDF Spokesman's Office confirmed that the IDF soldiers shot at two armed men who approached the security fence, killing one and wounding the other.
The attack was the deadliest single incident in the recent surge of factional fighting, which has claimed 23 lives.
In the early morning, a Hamas militant was killed at the hands of Fatah gunmen.
Later in the afternoon a Fatah member was killed during an attack against the Preventive Security headquarters in the neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa.
Two hours later, two members of Hamas were shot dead, and another Hamas man was killed in Gaza City.
A Palestinian man who was critically injured in the fighting later succumbed to his wounds.
A total of 27 Palestinians were wounded in Tuesday's fighting.
In a conversation with Abbas on Tuesday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told the Palestinian Authority chairman that the clashes in Gaza had 'crossed a red line' and said that both sides must put an end to violence.
Later in the day, Western sources said hundreds of fighters loyal to the Fatah faction crossed into Gaza from Egypt as possible reinforcements in fighting against Hamas militants. Fatah said the group that crossed into Gaza did not do so to fight Hamas.
The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt was briefly opened to readmit a 450-strong Fatah contingent into the coastal strip, according to the sources, who spoke in Israel on condition of anonymity. The sources said the crossing was opened, with Israeli consent, in only one direction to allow in the Fatah contingent. Once they crossed into Gaza, the crossing was re-closed.