(Reuters) - Rival Palestinian factions fought gun battles in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday and at least five Hamas militants were wounded, Hamas officials said.
Factional fighting has worsened since Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah called last month for early elections in his power struggle with the governing Hamas faction.
Tensions rose further at the weekend after Abbas declared illegal Hamas's nearly 6,000-strong "Executive Force".
The Islamist militant group, which took control of the Palestinian government in March after beating Fatah in parliamentary elections, has vowed to defy Abbas's declaration by doubling the size of the "Executive Force".
The latest factional violence was triggered by the abductions overnight of five Hamas gunmen -- four from Hamas's armed wing and one from the "Executive Force".
Fatah militants said the gunmen were seized for questioning because they were suspected of planning attacks. The five were released hours later but their vehicles came under fire as they left the scene. At least two of the Hamas men were wounded, reports Trend.
Hamas said three members of the "Executive Force" were also hurt on Tuesday when Fatah gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade at their vehicle. Fatah denied any role in the shootings, accusing Hamas of stockpiling weapons to fight Palestinian opponents.
"Hamas does not believe in national unity except as a slogan. Hamas's policy is based on excluding others and wiping out others," Abdel-Hakim Awad, a Fatah spokesman in Gaza, told a news conference.
He called for the disbanding of the "Executive Force", which Hamas has vowed to expand to 12,000 members.
Abbas's presidential guard has about 3,700 men. With aid from the United States and its allies, Abbas hopes to expand it to 4,700 members in 12 to 18 months. Palestinian sources said it could grow to 10,000 members.
The United States plans to provide $86 million to help expand the presidential guard, which receives arms from Egypt and Jordan. Iran provides financial support to Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction.
In the occupied West Bank, Israeli forces arrested three Hamas militants in a raid on houses in the city of Bethlehem, witnesses said. An Israeli army spokeswoman declined to give details, saying the operation was still under way.
The military mounted the Bethlehem raid five days after an incursion into the West Bank city of Ramallah in which four Palestinians were killed.
An Israeli general who approved the Ramallah operation said he had erred in its timing, just hours before a summit on Thursday between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who criticised the raid.
The army has carried out frequent raids in the West Bank against suspected militants since a Palestinian uprising began in 2000.