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Hamas wins the battle for Gaza control

Special to The Times

Hamas gunmen seized military control of the Gaza Strip on Thursday, executing Fatah rivals and provoking the collapse of their power-sharing Palestinian Authority government.

As Fatah’s last security command centers fell after four days of fighting, Hamas military men in black masks moved unchallenged across Gaza City, hunting down foes, blowing up homes and dragging the body of a top Fatah militant through the streets.

Hamas men marched humiliated agents of the once-feared Preventive Security Service out of their headquarters in handcuffs and stripped to the waist. The Islamic movement finished its rout by taking the Presidential Guard headquarters without a fight as its defenders fled by boat toward Egypt.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of Fatah, fired the Hamas-led Cabinet and declared a state of emergency. He said he would name an interim government and hinted at new elections.

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The president’s decrees, largely unenforceable in Gaza, appear certain to solidify the divide between his secular Fatah party, which favors negotiations with Israel, and Hamas, the Gaza-based Islamic militant group, which is backed by Syria and Iran and advocates destruction of the Jewish state.

But Abbas’ move could thwart Hamas’ efforts to gain international recognition and aid from the West, which has demanded that the movement recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept all previous accords between the Jewish state and the Palestinians.

“Abbas is telling the world that the current government does not represent the Palestinian Authority and therefore the world should not deal with it,” said Azmi Shueibi, a former Palestinian legislator.

At a news conference early today in Gaza City, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas called Abbas’ decrees “hasty” and said he would remain in his post. He said the Hamas militia would impose law and order in Gaza “firmly, decisively and legally.”

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The two factions had fought sporadically since Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections in January 2006, but not with the ferocity seen this week. In March, Hamas reluctantly brought Fatah into the Cabinet to quell violence and ease its diplomatic isolation, but the uneasy alliance began to unravel last month with feuding over control of security agencies that employ tens of thousands of men.

Firing mortars, grenade launchers and automatic weapons, Hamas fighters captured the Gaza City headquarters of the Preventive Security, Intelligence and National Security agencies Thursday afternoon, and executed some of their captives. The Presidential Guard compound fell late in the evening. All were controlled by Fatah.

Earlier in the day, Hamas overran the main Fatah compound in the southern city of Rafah, giving it full control of the border with Egypt, a source of the smuggled weapons that have expanded the movement’s arsenal in recent months.

At least 33 people were reported killed Thursday across Gaza, pushing the four-day toll above 90.

The intense fighting prompted the European Union to suspend its humanitarian projects in the impoverished seaside territory. The United Nations already had curtailed its food distribution program, which serves one-third of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents, after two of its aid workers were killed in crossfire.

Thursday’s fiercest battle raged at the headquarters of the Preventive Security Service, especially despised by Hamas militants because of the agency’s bloody crackdowns against the movement a decade ago.

Hamas fighters overran the headquarters amid mortar rounds and gunfire. They raised green Hamas flags over the shattered two-story compound, kneeled to the ground in prayer and marched handcuffed Fatah gunmen into the streets, some shirtless or in their underwear.

Hamas TV, which showed a room with wall-to-wall wiretapping equipment, said the building would be turned into an Islamic college.

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“There is a history to it, a vendetta and a settling of scores,” said Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi, an independent.

Fatah officials said Hamas men killed seven Fatah captives outside the Preventive Security compound. Witnesses confirmed two executions.

The rout of Fatah was swift, owing to Hamas’ superior discipline against a disorganized, dispirited foe that ran short of arms and ammunition.

Awad Shakra, 56, said he watched from his home as the three-story Fatah intelligence compound changed hands after a few hours of mortar fire.

“At 2 p.m. came the strong est shelling, and then suddenly the fighting was over,” he said. “A short while later, Hamas announced they controlled the place and raised their green flag from the roof.”

Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade retaliated with attacks on Hamas loyalists across the West Bank. Hamas said one of its members was shot to death and 23 were abducted in West Bank cities, some within sight of the police. In Nablus, Fatah gunmen stormed a Hamas office, hurled computers from the windows and set the premises ablaze.

Until this week, Fatah had calculated that its supremacy in the West Bank would serve to check attacks on its forces in Gaza. But Thursday there was no stopping Hamas here.

Pro-Fatah broadcasts went off the air and Fatah’s Voice of Palestine radio studios were set ablaze. Hamas-controlled radio stations broadcast appeals to Fatah gunmen to “surrender or face merciless retribution.”

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Hamas’ militia, the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade, said it shot to death a captured Fatah militant, Samih Madhoun, one of 55 Fatah men on a widely circulated hit list, for having broadcast a pledge to kill all members of the Islamic movement.

Hamas spokesman Sami abu Zuhri said the movement’s weeklong assault was a defensive move against a group within Fatah that was collaborating with Israel and the United States to sideline Hamas. He said Hamas wanted to bring all the Palestinian security forces under the control of the unity government formed in March.

Abbas denounced the Hamas offensive as an attempted coup. He decided to dissolve the Cabinet “to remove the shroud of legitimacy from a party that has acted in an illegitimate way,” a person who spoke to him said.

He can name a new government for the duration of the state of emergency but cannot dissolve the Hamas-dominated parliament. He must get the legislative body’s approval to extend the emergency beyond 30 days or to seat a new government after it is lifted.

Some experts said Abbas might be able to work around those restrictions because parliament lacks the quorum required for a vote; many Hamas lawmakers are in Israeli jails.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States backed Abbas’ decrees. He had informed Rice of his decision in a phone call.

“President Abbas has exercised his lawful authority as president of the Palestinian Authority, as leader of the Palestinian people,” Rice said. “We fully support him in his decision to try and end this crisis for the Palestinian people and give them an opportunity ... to return to peace and a better future.”

boudreaux@latimes.com

Special correspondent Abu Alouf reported from Gaza City and Times staff writer Boudreaux from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.


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