|Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has dug in his heels in a standoff with the ruling Hamas movement (AFP Photo)|
The volatile Gaza Strip has been on edge as Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and the Hamas movement faced off over the ruling Islamists' armed force, sparking fears that factional tensions could again erupt into deadly violence.
Three Palestinians were killed late on Saturday in Gaza City in a clash between two powerful clans, despite an agreement early Friday by Abbas and prime minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas to halt internecine violence that killed 13 people and wounded more than 60 last week.
Hours prior, Abbas demanded that Hamas disband its interior ministry troops, the so-called "executive force," saying they were illegal and should be incorporated into existing security structures.
"The executive force (controlled by Hamas) is illegal... and will be treated as such if it is not immediately integrated... into legal security services as stipulated by basic law," said a statement from the presidency.
Abbas also "decided to reshuffle and make new appointments in the security services and their leadership," it said, without elaborating.
Hamas slammed Abbas's call as a "mistake", warned against any moves against its 5,500-strong armed force and said it would double its size.
"It's not true that the executive force is outside of the security services," Haniya told reporters in Gaza late Saturday. "It works legally according to the orders of the interior ministry."
"There are certain people who don't want the Palestinian people to live in peace and stability. And they don't want the situation to calm down in order to create a serious and deep dialogue to reach a unity government."
A spokesman for the Hamas-controlled interior ministry, Khaled Abu Hillal, said that "we warn against making any move (against ministry troops), which will be met with force".
A spokesman for the force, Islam Shahwan, said that "the commanders of the (executive) force, with agreement from the interior minister, decided to raise the number of its members to 12,000".
Hamas deployed its "executive force" on the streets of Gaza in May two months after assuming power, despite Abbas's warnings that all armed troops needed to be integrated into security structures loyal to him.
Factional tensions simmered in the Palestinian territories on Saturday.
In Gaza, five Hamas members were abducted and the house of a Hamas MP was torched.
In the occupied West Bank, two senior Hamas officials were abducted, one briefly, and a third wounded by unknown gunmen.
Deadly clashes in Gaza City first erupted on December 16, after Abbas called for new elections in order to resolve a standoff with Hamas over forming a unity government. Hamas rejected the move, calling it a "coup."