(www.ap.org) - Saudi Arabia's king urged Palestinian rival factions Sunday to hold talks in the holy city of Mecca as fighting between the Hamas and Fatah movements persisted in Gaza with no clear winner emerging.
Hamas and Fatah gunmen battled each other across Gaza early Monday. Two Hamas fighters were killed overnight in the fighting as attacks were mounted on security compounds. An electrical transformer was knocked out by gunmen, plunging large parts of Gaza City into darkness, reports Trend.
Some of the most intense fighting took place outside the Gaza City headquarters of the Preventive Security Service, which a decade ago had led a crackdown on Hamas and is fiercely loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. Hamas gunmen fired dozens of mortar shells at the compound, drawing return fire through the night.
Information Minister Youssef Rizka of Hamas warned the two sides were close to civil war and called Abbas to order his forces back to their bases.
The bitter rivals have been buying, smuggling and building weapons for months trying to gain an edge, but they have held back from all-out battle and find themselves in a stalemate.
That leaves many Palestinians with grim hopes that a power-sharing deal still can be worked out between the Islamic militants of Hamas and the more moderate Abbas of Fatah.
Saudi King Abdullah called the factional fighting a "shame" that has undermined the Palestinian cause and urged both sides to join talks mediated by his country, Saudi Arabia's official news agency reported.
"I urge them to hold an emergency meeting in Mecca to discuss the contentious matters without any intervention from outside," Abdullah told the Saudi Press Agency.
"Our hearts bleed for what is happening in the land of our Palestinian brothers," he said. "This great atrocity with all its unjustified and weak reasons has stained the Palestinian's honorable national struggle."
Both sides welcomed the Saudi king's offer but did not say when talks might be held. Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas-led government, said the Islamic group was in talks with Egyptian mediators.
Bursts of violence have alternated with periods of tense calm since the factional fighting erupted in December following the collapse of Hamas-Fatah coalition talks and Abbas' threat to call early elections.
Clashes involving mortars, grenades, bombs and assault rifles have erupted spontaneously, without clear objectives or central command, raged for a few hours, then suddenly fizzled.
Experts expect the pattern to continue. "They are equal parties," analyst Nasser Al Lahham said. "No one can cancel the other out."
Thirty Palestinians, including two children, have died during the latest outburst of street fighting that began Thursday, raising the death toll to more than 60 since last month.
A battle erupted early Monday near the parliament building, where a Hamas fighter was killed, Hamas and hospital officials said.
Fatah gunmen killed a Hamas security force member early Monday and a Hamas activist in Khan Younis on Sunday. Another gunman, whose affiliation was not immediately known, and a 45-year-old civilian were also killed, hospital officials said.
Several kidnappings also were reported in the factional conflict. The most brazen was in the West Bank city of Nablus, where Fatah gunmen walked into a bank and dragged out a local Hamas leader.
Hot spots in the fighting include the headquarters of Abbas' security forces, Hamas-run mosques and the homes and offices of leaders from both sides, where guards hunker down behind concrete barriers and piles of sandbags.
Traffic jams are getting worse by the day in Gaza City's already crowded streets because more and more roads are being closed to motorists by the rival security forces.
Neither side is using all of its firepower because they are giving coalition talks another chance and because they fear risking defeat in an all-out confrontation, said Mouin Rabbani, a Jordan-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank.
Each side can count on thousands of armed men. Most members of Palestinian security forces are loyal to Abbas, while Hamas last year set up its own 5,600-man militia. Each also has a military wing вЂ" Fatah's Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and Hamas' Izzedine Al Qassam Brigades.
Hamas is getting funds from Iran and other Islamic supporters worldwide, while the Bush administration has asked Congress to approve $85 million in aid for Abbas' troops.
Israeli analyst Shlomo Brom, a retired army general, said the U.S. shouldn't count on Abbas being able to defeat Hamas militarily. "That is not going to happen, because Hamas is a political movement that enjoys great support among the Palestinians," he said.
The Gaza muddle will likely continue, Brom added. "The probability of a full-scale war is low, because the two parties understand the consequences and they understand there will be no clear winner."
Both sides began preparing for the possibility of a big battle after Israel left the Gaza Strip in September 2005 and the arms race intensified after Hamas won legislative elections a year ago and took control of the Palestinian government. Rifles, missiles, ammunition and explosives have been pouring into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt, reaching both Hamas and Fatah, security officials and weapons dealers say.
In a climate of increasing lawlessness, Gaza clans also have stocked up on weapons, two weapons dealers in the southern Gaza border town of Rafah said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of arrest.
Higher-quality Russian- and Iraqi-made Kalashnikov assault rifles are no longer available, and Egyptian or Chinese models sell for up to $2,300, almost double what they cost a year ago, the dealers said. Kalashnikov bullets now cost $3.30 apiece, up from $2.30, they said.
Abu Suoud, 32, a Fatah gunman in Rafah, said his group is hoarding ammunition, and no longer wasting bullets by firing into the air at weddings and funerals.
"We save each bullet for the battle," he said.