GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Islamist fighters from Hamas tightened their hold on the Gaza Strip Wednesday as secular Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas fled to Egypt and appeared to be on the verge of collapse.
Hamas fighters used an underground tunnel months in the making to bomb a Palestinian Authority military compound in Khan Younis. They opened fire on a peaceful protest in Gaza City, and warned that no place – not even the president’s oceanside headquarters – would be a sanctuary for Fatah members.
In an attempt to escape one Gaza City siege, a prominent Fatah ally fled his home by tying Hamas hostages to the roof and hood of his pickup truck as human shields in hopes that the Islamist fighters would hold their fire. They didn’t.
Hamas gave Fatah fighters in the northern Gaza Strip until sundown today to surrender their weapons. Egyptian and Palestinian officials said that more than three dozen gunmen loyal to Abbas blew a hole through the wall separating Gaza from Egypt and fled across the border.
A victory for Hamas would all but destroy the three-month-old Palestinian unity government and eradicate any hope of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It also would be another blow to American Middle East policy, which backs Fatah against Hamas, which is supported by Iran and Syria and by militant Sunni Muslims in the Persian Gulf.
Nearly 70 people have been killed in four days of fighting, during which Hamas has swiftly routed Fatah fighters in virtually every showdown. By sundown Wednesday, Abbas loyalists were holding on only to a few largely symbolic strongholds, including the presidential compound overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Abbas was at his main headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank.
“Any place that commits any kind of aggression against Hamas has to be targeted,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. “Abbas’ compound is now a place for this terrorism, and these violent groups and these Fatah militants are protecting themselves in this place in order to target Hamas members.”
Abbas called the situation in Gaza “madness,” and made another unsuccessful appeal for calm. Fatah loyalists tried to cast their setbacks as an effort to avert a bloody civil war.
It appeared more likely, however, that Fatah was outgunned and outmaneuvered by the more disciplined Hamas fighters, and there were few indications that Egyptian mediators trying to end the crisis were making any headway.
“I do believe it is the end of Palestinian democracy,” said Ayman Shaheen, a political science professor at the Fatah-allied Al Azar University in Gaza City.