Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday declared a Hamas security force in Gaza illegal after a surge in internal violence, a move that quickly stoked political tensions.
Throwing down the gauntlet to Abbas, the governing Hamas militant movement’s “Executive Force” said it would double its size to 12,000 personnel.
The president's announcement came two days after Col. Mohammed Ghareeb of the Preventive Security Service, a Fatah member, and six of his men, were killed in a siege of his home in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya. Hamas gunmen blamed the shooting on Ghareeb’s bodyguards.
Hamas created the force after forming a government in March and had defied a previous order by Abbas to integrate personnel into other more well-established security services.
Many recent gun battles on the streets of the Gaza Strip have been between the Hamas force and security men loyal to Abbas and his once dominant Fatah faction.
“The President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas ... considers the executive force, both officers and individuals, illegal and outlawed,” Abbas’ office said in a statement.
Hamas force, from 6,000 to 12,000
The statement said the Hamas force would remain illegal until it complied with Abbas’ previous decision.
Speaking hours after the announcement, a spokesman for the Hamas force said its numbers would double from nearly 6,000.
“A decision was taken to increase the number of the executive force to 12,000. We call upon all sincere citizens to prepare themselves to join the force,” Islam Shahwan said.
Shahwan gave no timeframe and did not say where the money to expand the force would come from, but Hamas receives funding from Iran and other Islamist allies.
Abbas’ presidential guard, by comparison, has about 3,700 members. 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.
Some Palestinians fear civil war in the wake of Abbas’ call last month for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections to break a political deadlock with Hamas after the two sides failed to form a unity government.
Hamas trounced Fatah in elections last January, but the two sides have been locked in bitter conflict ever since.
Abbas ‘contradicted the positive atmosphere’
The Interior Ministry said Abbas’ order would stir unrest.
“This is a green light to those who have decided to target the executive force and shed the blood of its members,” ministry spokesman Khaled Abu Hilal told a news conference in Gaza.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, said the force was part of the security apparatus because it came under Interior Ministry control.
He said Abbas’ order “contradicted the positive atmosphere” at meetings between the two men late this week, where they agreed to keep gunmen off Gaza’s streets.
One Abbas aide, Nabil Amr, said the Hamas force was “carrying out armed operations and acted as a militia, and therefore is considered illegal.”
In northern Gaza on Saturday, unknown gunmen stormed the empty house of Hamas lawmaker Youssef al-Shrafi and set it ablaze.
Western governments want Abbas to triumph over Hamas, which the United States and Israel regard as a terrorist group.
The Bush administration will provide $86 million to strengthen security forces loyal to Abbas, according to documents seen by Reuters on Friday.