Gaza City, Gaza Strip A beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency and disbanded the Hamas-led unity government after the Islamic militant group vanquished its Fatah rivals and effectively took control of the Gaza Strip on Thursday.
Fearful that Hamas' momentum could spread to the West Bank, Fatah went on the offensive there, rounding up three dozen Hamas fighters. Angry militants threw office furniture out a third-story window of the Palestinian parliament building in Ramallah, then set fire to the office of three Hamas lawmakers. A Hamas activist was shot and killed in Nablus, the first person to be killed in the West Bank after days of violence in Gaza; the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent Fatah offshoot, claimed responsibility.
In Gaza, it was a day of major victories for Hamas and its backers in Iran and Syria - and of devastating setbacks for the Western-backed Fatah. In one particularly humiliating scene, masked Hamas fighters marched agents of the once-feared Preventive Security Service out of their headquarters, arms raised in the air, stripped to the waist and ducking at the sound of a gunshot.
"The era of justice and Islamic rule has arrived," Hamas spokesman Islam Shahawan said.
The violence has killed at least 90 people in the past five days, including 33 on Thursday alone. Witnesses, Fatah officials and a doctor reported executions by Hamas militants of defeated Fatah fighters Thursday; Fatah said seven of its men were shot in the head gangland-style. Hamas denied any such killings.
Abbas, of Fatah, fired the Hamas prime minister and said he would install a new government, replacing the Hamas-Fatah coalition formed just three months ago. Abbas' decrees, which he issued in Ramallah, won't reverse the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Instead, his moves will enable Fatah to consolidate its control over the West Bank, likely paving the way for two separate Palestinian governments.
At a news conference in Gaza City early today, deposed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh rejected Abbas' declaration, calling it "hasty" and saying he would maintain the unity government. Haniyeh said the situation was "not suitable for unilateral decisions."
He said the Hamas militia would impose law and order "firmly, decisively and legally." He also rejected the idea of a Palestinian state in Gaza only, run by Hamas.
In Damascus, one of the exiled leaders of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzouk, also rejected setting up an Islamic state there. "Gaza will remain Gaza and there will be no changes in its future and will continue to be linked to the West Bank," he said.
But because Fatah has recognized Israel's right to exist and signed on to past peace agreements, the international community's boycott of the Palestinian territories in the wake of Hamas' electoral successes may no longer apply to the West Bank - just to Gaza. Some 2 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, while 1.4 million reside in Gaza.
Fatah's old demons - corruption, petty quarreling, lack of leadership - led to its dismal performance in Gaza. While disciplined Hamas systematically hoarded weapons, Fatah's Gaza leader, Mohammed Dahlan, preferred travel and West Bank politics to preparing for the inevitable showdown with the Islamic militants. Dahlan returned Thursday from Egypt, where he stayed several weeks after knee surgery. But instead of going to Gaza, he headed for Ramallah.
Many West Bank Palestinians, watching the fall of Gaza on their TV screens, pinned the blame on Abbas, whom they see as indecisive and detached. During the Hamas assaults in Gaza this week, no prominent Fatah leader was in the coastal strip to take command.
"Hamas has leadership, a goal, an ideology and funding," said Gaza analyst Talal Okal. "Fatah has neither leadership, nor a goal, a vision or money."
By capturing Gaza City's three main security compounds and the southern town of Rafah, Hamas secured its hegemony in Gaza, putting Islamic extremists in control there. The final target for Hamas was Abbas' Gaza City headquarters, which fell without a fight late Thursday as some officials fled by boat in the direction of Egypt.
For first time since fighting erupted five days ago, Abbas issued an order to strike back. But his words were too little, too late.
Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz vowed not to let the takeover of Gaza spill over into violence against Israel. Some Israelis said only a Gaza invasion could curb Hamas' military power. But for now, the government seems more inclined to stay out, fearful of inviting more rocket attacks on southern Israel.