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Gaza Fighting Puts Unity Government in Jeopardy

Heavy fighting in the Gaza Strip between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah escalated sharply Tuesday. Leaders of the Fatah faction are meeting to discuss whether to withdraw from the three-month-old Palestinian unity government. VOA's Jim Teeple reports at least 24 people were killed Tuesday.

Hamas gunmen attacked a Fatah security compound in Gaza City late Tuesday in a sharp escalation of fighting that seems to be spiraling out of control. In another ominous sign, Egyptian security officials called off a meeting between the two factions.

A statement from the office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads Fatah, accused Hamas leaders of plotting a coup, saying they were trying to seize control of Gaza by force.

Hamas leaders like Fawzi Barhoum rejected the comments.

Barhoum says Mr. Abbas is adding to the tensions. He says the Palestinian president should be more balanced.

A large Fatah security force known as the National Security Forces was deployed late Tuesday to defend Fatah positions.

Earlier in the day, gunmen attacked Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's house with rocket-propelled grenades. Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, was not harmed. Hamas called the attack an assassination attempt.

Tuesday's large scale violence follows a spike in fighting over the past few days that has spilled over into hospitals and brought ordinary life to a halt in much of the Gaza Strip. Reporter Mohammed Dawass says much of the original fighting seemed to be carried out by armed gangs who appeared to be acting on their own. "I think this is happening because there is no control on the armed people in the streets by their leaders. I do not think anybody can control them actually. Nobody can control these armed men in the streets," he said.

The violence, which has included summary public executions, forced a first time-ever cancellation of school and university entrance exams.

Dawass says the violence could not have happened at a worse time. "These exams are very important because they decide whether you either go to a university or not; whether you either go to a good college or note. This is for us the most difficult, the most sensitive exam you take in your life. It is a crossroads in your life," he said.

Tensions also spread on Tuesday to the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Fatah security officials shut down a bureau of the Hamas-run Al-Aksa television and radio network, seizing several journalists.

Fatah and Hamas have been engaged in a bitter power struggle ever since Hamas won legislative elections last year.