Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed decrees Thursday dismissing a three-month-old unity government formed with Hamas and declaring a state of emergency, as Hamas fighters threatened to complete a takeover of the Gaza Strip.
The moves were to be announced in a news conference at Abbas' headquarters at 9 p.m. local time, Abbas' aides said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters on the issue.
Abbas would also call for deployment of a multi-national force in Gaza and name an independent as new Palestinian prime minister, his aides said.
Abbas had already informed the U.S., Egypt and Jordan of his decisions, the aides said.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Abbas Thursday and underlined U.S. support for Palestinian moderates committed to a negotiated peace with Israel, a spokesman said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack also told a news briefing the Bush administration would consider an international peacekeeping force for Gaza advanced by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon but believes that finding effective troops would be difficult.
Hamas claims it's overtaken police headquarters
The political moves by Fatah's beleaguered leader came as Hamas claimed its forces had taken control of the Fatah-run National Police Headquarters in Gaza City. Earlier, Hamas fighters overran two of the rival movement’s most important security command centers. Witnesses said the victors dragged vanquished gunmen into the street and shot them to death execution-style.
Hamas also seized control of Rafah in the south, Gaza’s third-largest city. It was the second main Gaza city to fall to the militants, who captured nearby Khan Younis on Wednesday, and gave Hamas control of the porous border with Egypt, which has been the source of arms smuggling.
Israel denies tank struck children
Israel was also caught up in the Palestinian power struggle, with Palestinian security officials alleging that an Israeli tank shell killed six people — including five children — in Rafah on Thursday. The Israeli military denied there was any army fire in the area.
Hospital workers said the children were all siblings under the age 16 and were riding in a car at the time they were killed. The driver of the car was also killed, the security officials said.
Hamas earlier captured the Preventive Security headquarters and the intelligence services building in Gaza City, major advances in the Islamic group’s attempts to take over Gaza. Hamas also demanded that Fatah surrender its last big security installation in the city.
After the rout at the security headquarters, some of the Hamas fighters knelt outside, touching their foreheads to the ground in prayer. Others led Fatah gunmen out of the building, some shirtless or in their underwear, holding their arms in the air. Several of the Fatah men flinched as the crack of gunfire split the air.
“We are telling our people that the past era has ended and will not return,” Islam Shahawan, a spokesman for Hamas’ militia, told Hamas radio. “The era of justice and Islamic rule have arrived.”
But Abu Zuhri played down the notion of imposing an Islamic state, saying “nothing is going to be changed in the social and cultural life of our people” if Hamas takes over Gaza.
'Executing one by one'
Fatah officials said Hamas shot and killed seven of its fighters outside the Preventive Security building. A doctor at Shifa Hospital said he examined two bodies that had been shot in the head at close range. The officials and the doctor spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
A witness, who identified himself only as Amjad, said men were killed as their wives and children watched.
“They are executing them one by one,” Amjad, who lives in a building overlooking the Preventive Security complex, said by telephone. “They are carrying one of them on their shoulders, putting him on a sand dune, turning him around and shooting.”
The killers ignored appeals from residents to spare the men’s lives, said Amjad, who declined to give his full name, fearing reprisal.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri denied the reports of execution-style killings. “Whoever was killed was killed in clashes, he said.
Preventive Security is an especially despised target of Hamas because the agency carried out bloody crackdowns against the Islamic group in the 1990s.
Militants and civilians looted the compound, hauling out computers, documents, office equipment, furniture and TVs.
Abbas order too late?
Abbas, for the first time in five days of fierce fighting, ordered his elite presidential guard to strike back. But his forces were crumbling fast under the onslaught by the better-armed and better-disciplined Islamic fighters.
In all, 14 fighters and civilians were killed and 80 wounded in the battle for the Preventive Security complex, bringing the day’s death toll to 26, hospital and security officials said. About 90 people, mostly fighters but also women and children, have been killed since a spike in violence Sunday sent Gaza into civil war.
The two factions have warred sporadically since Hamas took power from Fatah last year, but never with such intensity. Hamas reluctantly brought Fatah into the coalition in March to quell earlier violence, but the uneasy partnership began crumbling last month over control of the powerful security forces.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, leaving the Palestinians responsible for the first time for running their own day-to-day affairs. Israel maintained control of Gaza’s airspace and coastal waters, and monitors the Gaza-Egypt border by video-link.
Hamas had been tightening its grip on the Preventive Security complex for three days, stepping up its assault late Wednesday with a barrage of bullets, grenades, mortar rounds and land mines that continued until it fell. Electricity and phone lines were cut, and roads leading to the complex were blocked.
The Palestine Liberation Organization’s top body recommended that Abbas declare a state of emergency and dismantle Fatah’s governing coalition with Hamas. Abbas said he would review the recommendations and decide later Thursday, said an aide, Nabil Amr.
Israel was watching the carnage closely, concerned the clashes might spawn attacks on its southern border. Defense Minister Amir Peretz told a weekly security meeting that Israel would not allow the violence to spread to attacks on southern Israel, meeting participants said.
White House press secretary Tony Snow called the situation “a source of profound concern” that is being monitored by Washington. He said Hamas has expanded its “acts of terror” to target the Palestinian people themselves.
The State Department backed Abbas and said it has not changed its view that Hamas is a terrorist organization.
“We are keeping a very close watch,” he said. “It’s certainly not a situation we like.”
Humanitarian aid on hold
The European Union suspended tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid projects in the Gaza Strip because of the escalating violence, a day after the U.N. announced it would scale back its relief projects there.
The head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, warned of a “disastrous outcome” if the bloody infighting continues and called for an immediate cease-fire.
Hamas, meanwhile, had its sights on two other key command centers in Gaza City and widened its onslaught to include Fatah-linked broadcast outlets.
In a broadcast on Hamas radio, the Islamic fighters demanded that Fatah surrender the National Security compound by midafternoon. Light clashes were under way there when the ultimatum was delivered.
RPGs were fired toward Abbas’ Gaza compound, provoking return fire from his presidential guard. For the first time since the fighting began, Abbas ordered his guard to go on the offensive against Hamas at the compound, and not simply maintain a defensive posture, an aide said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the situation was fluid.
Hamas fighters fired dozens of RPGs at the intelligence services building in Gaza City. Hamas TV showed smoke billowing from the top two floors of the mortar-pocked, five-story building. Five masked gunmen posed inside for the camera, including one who raised two assault rifles in triumph.
Media outlets are targets
Fatah-allied Voice of Palestine Radio was on fire after Hamas attacked it, Palestine TV reported. Two local radio stations had shut down after Hamas threatened to blow up all broadcast outlets belonging to “collaborators.”
In Rafah, Hamas took over the Preventive Security building, according to witnesses and Col. Nasser Khaldi, a senior police official. A resident who gave his name as Raed said Hamas had raised its green flags over the building, Fatah-allied security forces had fled, and men carried away equipment from inside.
Gaza hospitals were operating without water, electricity and blood.
Even holed up inside their homes, Gazans weren’t able to escape the fighting. Moean Hammad, 34, said life had become a nightmare at his high-rise building near the Preventive Security headquarters, where Fatah forces on the rooftop were battling Hamas fighters.
“We spent our night in the hallway outside the apartment because the building came under crossfire,” Hammad said. “We haven’t had electricity for two days, and all we can hear is shooting and powerful, earthshaking explosions.
“The world is watching us dying and doing nothing to help,” he said.
Fatah has asked Israeli permission to bring in more arms, but Tzahi Hanegbi, chairman of the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Army Radio that arming Fatah would be “insane” because the weapons would fall into Hamas hands.
He said Israel was considering backing Fatah forces in the West Bank, but did not elaborate.