RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli forces mounted a rare raid into the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday, killing four Palestinians, while a spasm of factional fighting among Palestinians in Gaza left six dead.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, held late-night talks in Gaza to try to defuse tensions, Palestinian officials said.
It was their first meeting in about two months.
The Ramallah operation cast a shadow over a summit Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak held a few hours later in Egypt to explore restarting stalled Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
Smoke rose over central Ramallah after Israeli armored vehicles and bulldozers, slamming aside parked cars near the main Manara Square, pushed into the city to carry out what an Israeli army spokeswoman called “routine arrest activity”.
She said four wanted men had been detained.
The raid was the biggest in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government, since May, when four Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. Palestinians responded to the latest incursion with gunfire and rocks as pedestrians fled for safety.
Hospital officials said three Palestinians were killed outright and a fourth died later in hospital. At least 25 other people wounded before Israeli forces withdrew.
“This operation proves that Israeli calls for peace and security are false,” Abbas said in a statement read by a spokesman.
In fighting between rival Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip, a policeman loyal to the governing Hamas movement was killed by gunmen from Abbas’s Fatah faction.
Blaming the shooting on bodyguards of Colonel Mohammed Ghareeb of the Preventive Security Service, Hamas gunmen then besieged his home, killing the officer and four of his men and wounding his wife, in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.
Clashes also erupted in the nearby Jabalya refugee camp and at least 30 people were wounded, hospital officials said.
Violence has surged in Gaza since Abbas challenged Hamas by calling on December 16 for early parliamentary and presidential elections after talks on forming a unity government failed.
Haniyeh said earlier he and Abbas were hoping to meet.
“I demand all gunmen withdraw from the streets and end all armed displays immediately,” he told reporters. “I ask all parties to resort only to dialogue to resolve political differences.”
Gazans said they feared that Ghareeb’s death would lead to a sharp spike in internal fighting. Local radio talk shows were flooded with calls from residents appealing to Fatah and Hamas to pull back from the brink.
Shortly after the Ramallah raid, Olmert and Mubarak met in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Disagreements surfaced at a testy news conference.
“I expressed to the prime minister our indignation at what happened today in Ramallah and said that Israel and all the people in the region will achieve peace only by refraining from all practices which obstruct its course,” Mubarak said.
Olmert said he apologized if innocent people were injured but defended the operation in principle.
“One must remember that Israel must take measures to prevent terrorists from harming Israeli citizens ... during the operation, there were shots fired at Israeli soldiers and I am sorry to say events unfolded in an unforeseen fashion,” he said.
A senior leader of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group in Fatah, said the incursion was aimed at capturing one of its top members.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza