March of anger in Gaza

RAMALLAH, West Bank – Thousands of angry civil servants turned up the pressure on the beleaguered Hamas government Wednesday, marching to demand payment of overdue wages and winning Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ blessing for a major strike next week.

As the Palestinians’ internal tensions simmered, fighting intensified between Gaza militants and Israeli troops searching for smuggling tunnels and explosives. At least eight Palestinians were killed in air strikes and gunbattles near Gaza City.

Visiting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for an end to the fighting in the coastal strip that has killed more than 200 Palestinians since it began two months ago. He also demanded that Israel open Gaza’s crossing points.

“This must stop immediately,” Annan said. “I have made my feelings known in talks with Israeli officials. Beyond preserving life, we have to sustain life. The closure of Gaza must be lifted, the crossing points must be opened, not just to allow goods (in), but to allow Palestinian exports out as well.”

The planned civil service strike, a symbol of the growing confrontation between Abbas’ Fatah Party and the Hamas government, would plunge Gaza and the West Bank deeper into chaos. The strike threat gives Abbas greater leverage in negotiations with the Islamic militant group over a unity government.

Hamas has been unable to pay full salaries to the 165,000 government employees, including some 40,000 teachers and 85,000 members of the security forces, since an international aid freeze was imposed on the Palestinian government in March when Hamas came to power.

Hamas, considered a terror group by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, has refused to accept Western conditions for restoring aid, including recognizing Israel and renouncing violence.

About 3,000 government employees marched through Ramallah on Wednesday to demand their salaries, and the civil servants’ union, which represents tens of thousands of teachers and health care workers, has said it would launch an open-ended strike next week, at the start of the school year.

Hamas says the strike is aimed at destabilizing the government and called on teachers to ignore it.

“Calls for a strike are an attempt to exploit the suffering of our brothers,” Hamas said in a statement. “It is playing on their feelings for factional aims that have no relation to national interests, especially since those calling for the strike are from one political faction that has no ties with employees.”

Many union leaders are members of Fatah, which held power before Hamas was overwhelmingly voted into power.

Abbas backed the unions on Wednesday. “It is the employees’ right to demonstrate and strike,” he said.

He also said the cash crisis could be overcome by establishing a broader government that is more palatable to the West. Abbas and Hamas leaders have talked about forming such a coalition that would include Fatah, but have failed to agree on the terms.

Hamas has insisted it retain key positions and has balked at softening its militant ideology to meet the West’s demands.

“If we want a national unity government, we need a capable one, a government that can deliver salaries and aid,” Abbas said.

According to Abbas’ draft platform for a unity government, obtained by The Associated Press, the president is calling for the government to push for a peace deal with Israel based on a two-state solution. He also would be responsible for administrating those negotiations, as well as the “higher commander of the national security forces.

Meanwhile, Israeli troops killed eight Palestinians in Gaza in two air strikes and gunbattles on the outskirts of Gaza City, Palestinian witnesses and hospital doctors said.

The deaths raised to 18 the number of Palestinians killed since Israeli forces began searching for tunnels and explosives in Gaza City’s Shajaiyeh neighborhood Saturday night.

Most of those killed have been militants, but a 14-year-old boy was shot to death Wednesday as he gathered with a group of people to watch the fighting, hospital officials said. Palestinian boys often gather to watch Israeli troops during raids in Gaza.

The army also released visual images of what it described as a tunnel dug from Shajaiyeh to the Karni crossing, the main cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel, and was to be used for an attack.

Israel has closed cargo and pedestrian crossing points in Gaza for long stretches this year following security alerts and attacks by Palestinian militants, causing widespread hardship for the Palestinian people.

The army began its wide-scale offensive in Gaza after Hamas-allied militants used a tunnel to sneak into Israel on June 25 and attack an army post, capturing Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit. The offensive also was intended to stop militant rocket attacks on Israel.

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