Fatah bolsters ranks as Gaza fighting intensifies

Hundreds of Fatah gunmen streamed into the Gaza Strip Tuesday from neighbouring Egypt after a Hamas attack killed eight people at a Fatah-controlled base near an Israeli border crossing.

Death toll rises to 22

Hundreds of gunmen loyal to the Palestinian faction Fatah streamed into the Gaza Strip Tuesday from neighbouring Egypt after a Hamas attack killed eight people at a Fatah-controlled base near a key Israeli border crossing.

The Egyptian-trained Fatah forces areseen as reinforcements for a full-scale battle with rival Hamas as the two factions effectively ended a fragile ceasefire declared late Monday.

A Fatah spokesman saidthe men are being deployed as security personnel and denied reports that they were to join the fighting against Hamas forces.

EarlierTuesday, a Hamas attack on the Fatah-controlled postnear Karni drew fire from nearby Israeli troops, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials,and threatened to drag Israel into the current round of Palestinian factional fighting.

The battle was the deadliest so far in three days of fighting between Fatah and Hamas. At least22 people have died so far, bringing life in Gaza to a standstill and pushing the fragile Palestinian unity government closer to collapse.

The Karni fighting erupted when Hamas gunmen approached a training base used by Fatah forces that guard the crossing. The Hamas force attacked the base with rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, said Ahmed al-Kaisi, spokesman for the pro-Fatah Presidential Guard, which guards the crossing under an agreement with Israel.

Security officials saideight men were killed in a Hamas ambush as they headed toward Karni to help their comrades.

At one point, Israeli troops opened fire at a group of gunmen who approached the border about a kilometre from the battle, striking one of the men,the army said. Palestinian officials said one man was killed, though his identity wasn't immediately known.

The attackfollowed the shooting deaths of two Hamas members in ambushes the previous night, as well as the slayingsof a Fatah commander and an unidentified man accompanying him.

Israel debating whether to take military action

Israel has largelyremained silent throughout the latest Palestinian infighting. On Tuesday, Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said his government would not intervene in the conflict.

Hamas also claimed credit Tuesday for a rocket attackon the Israeli town of Sderot that struck a house and injured four Israelis.

Israel has been debating whether to take large-scale military action in Gaza in response to repeated rocket fire aimed at southern Israel, but this week officials postponed a decision on whether to act.

The sound of gunfire echoed throughout Gaza Tuesday morning despite a new ceasefire deal reached late Monday.

Among the injured was a 10-year-old girl who was caught in the crossfire late Tuesday. She wascritically wounded by a gunshot to the head, Palestinian rescue workers said.

One Hamas man was killed in a shootout early Tuesday in Gaza City, security officials said. In many places, the violence centred around roadblocks set up by the Fatah-affiliated Palestinian security and began when cars containing Hamas gunmen were stopped.

The fighting came as the Palestinians marked the anniversary of the Nakba, (Arabicfor "catastrophe"), the word they use to describe Israel's establishment 59 years ago.

Formed unity government in March

In a speech, Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority Ismail Haniyeh made little mention of the infighting, only urging the Palestinians "to work together in order to protect our national unity government and make it succeed."

Much of Haniyeh's commentsfocused on the conflict with Israel.

Hamas and Fatah formeda unity government in March with the aim of ending months of deadly infighting. While the agreement has reduced tensions, it has done little to halt a wave of kidnappings, carjackings, robberies and lawlessness gripping the Gaza Strip.

The political rivals began fighting again over the weekend after President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah deployed thousands of pro-Fatah forces to try to restore law and order in Gaza. Hamas, which has its own militia, was angry that it was not consulted.

With files from the Associated Press