Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday outlawed the Hamas-led Interior Ministry's police force, the most powerful armed unit outside his control in factional fighting that has left 33 people dead in the last month.
The ministry responded with defiance. It announced plans to double the size of the black-uniformed paramilitary force and vowed to resist Abbas' order that its 6,000 members be incorporated into the security apparatus loyal to the president's Fatah movement.
The dueling announcements raised the prospect of an intensified armed standoff. Abbas' only means of enforcing the order appeared to be coercive action by police and security units under his command, but they are relatively weak in the Gaza Strip, Hamas' stronghold.
In an effort to strengthen Abbas, U.S. officials have said they expect to ask Congress for nearly $100 million in aid to help train and supply his expanding Presidential Guard. The Bush administration and Israel have recently coordinated arms shipments to Abbas' forces from Egypt.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to meet with Abbas here this month to discuss efforts to weaken and isolate Hamas, the Iranian-backed Islamic movement that leads the Palestinian government. Hamas resists Abbas' efforts to start peace talks with Israel, and refuses to recognize the Jewish state.
Saturday's statement by Abbas came two days after a unit of the Interior Ministry police, known as the Executive Force, besieged the Gaza home of a Fatah commander, Col. Mohammed Ghayeb, killing him and his bodyguards and seriously wounding his wife and brother.
Hamas officials said Ghayeb had been responsible for the deaths of two of their fighters.
Abbas ordered the Executive Force disbanded "in light of continued lawlessness and assassinations," the statement said. It said its members would be treated as outlaws unless they were incorporated into forces commanded by the president.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled abu Hilal called Abbas' announcement "a green light to those who seek to shed the blood of the Executive Force members" and said the force would "deal firmly" with anyone who attacked it.
Intermittent fighting among the Palestinians erupted after elections a year ago created a division of power between the president and Hamas, which won control of parliament and formed a government in March. The split paralyzed most governing institutions, and the rival movements began conducting politics through armed force.
Abbas claims authority over the various armed Palestinian forces created in the 1990s by Yasser Arafat, the late Fatah and Palestinian Authority leader. Today they include two police agencies with 15,000 members each in addition to the elite Presidential Guard, which is being enlarged from 4,000 to 6,000 members.
Hamas formed the Executive Force in March, saying the Fatah-led forces had become corrupt and ineffective.
Shortly afterward, Abbas tried to disband the Executive Force but failed. Hamas officials have said they are open to the idea of incorporating the force into the president's security apparatus, but only if Abbas overhauls its command structure to make it less partisan.
The announcement Saturday said Abbas planned a reshuffle of commanders but gave no details. On Thursday, he appointed Brig. Gen. Jamal Kayed, a Fatah loyalist who is believed to have good relations with Hamas, to head one of his police agencies in Gaza.
Many Palestinians on both sides of the divide say the only way Abbas can end the violence is through a power-sharing agreement with Hamas. The two sides discussed such a pact for much of last year, until Abbas broke off talks with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in November.
The two men met early Friday for the first time since then and seemed to be working together to restore calm after the killings Thursday.
Haniyeh said Saturday that Abbas' outlawing of the Executive Force "contradicted the positive atmosphere" of their meeting. He said the Executive Force is legal. Abu Hilal said the Interior Ministry was taking applications to expand the force to 12,000 members.
Factional fighting continued Saturday.
In the West Bank, gunmen abducted the Hamas deputy mayor of Nablus from his car and stormed the Interior Ministry offices in Ramallah, where they wounded the office manager in the legs.
In Gaza City, three members of a pro-Hamas family were killed by gunmen from a rival clan considered to be Fatah supporters.
The Hamas radio station said one of the dead was an Executive Force member.
Times staff writer Boudreaux reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Abukhater from Ramallah. Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.