JERUSALEM – Hamas forces completed their takeover of the Gaza Strip early today with the capture of President Mahmoud Abbas’ seaside compound, raising urgent questions throughout the region and in Washington about how to respond to the emergence of a militant Islamic enclave on Israel’s southern border.
The Hamas victory over forces of the rival Fatah movement dealt a heavy blow to U.S.-sponsored peace efforts, as the Palestinians are divided geographically and politically. Hamas now controls Gaza while Fatah remains dominant in the West Bank.
While some analysts portrayed the developments as a failure for the U.S. efforts to support Abbas, a moderate who supports peace negotiations with Israel, others debated how Israel would deal with Hamas, a militant Islamic movement that refuses to recognize Israel and rejects a permanent peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
That elusive goal has been the focus of a renewed push by the Bush administration, reflecting the widespread belief that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis has inflamed militants throughout the Middle East and must be addressed comprehensively before stability can be achieved in Iraq and other troubled parts of the region. The U.S. has funneled millions of dollars to bolster Abbas’ government in hopes of encouraging renewed peace talks.
But both Israel and the U.S. consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and the question of who represents the Palestinian leadership now appears in doubt. As Hamas fighters overwhelmed his forces’ main command centers in Gaza City on Thursday, Abbas dissolved the Palestinian unity government, dismissing Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and announcing the formation of a temporary emergency government.
Hamas leaders rejected Abbas’ move and said they constituted the legitimate elected government.
Abbas, the leader of Fatah, also declared a state of emergency, accusing Hamas of a “military coup.”
But none of the measures, announced at Abbas’ headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, was likely to be enforced in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas took control after less than a week of fighting that has killed some 90 people and wounded scores more.
In a final push Thursday, Hamas forces captured the Preventive Security headquarters and General Intelligence building in Gaza City after battles in which the attackers pounded their targets with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and explosive charges.
Later Hamas fighters also took Al-Saraya, the headquarters of the paramilitary National Security Forces, with little resistance, capturing vehicles, arms and ammunition.
The fall of Preventive Security headquarters had special significance for both sides. More than a decade ago, the Fatah-allied force had been at the forefront of factional fighting with Hamas and led a crackdown on the group.
In a scene shown on Hamas television, Preventive Security officers were led out of their headquarters, stripped to the waist, their arms in the air. Several flinched at the crack of a gunshot.
A witness and Fatah officials said several officers were executed, shot in the head after they surrendered, the Associated Press reported. Hamas denied such killings and said the men died in combat.
Separately, a senior Fatah commander who had boasted in a radio interview that he had killed Hamas fighters was executed publicly, and images of the killing were broadcast on Hamas television.
Black-clad Hamas fighters in ski masks and green bandannas overran the captured security buildings, firing bursts of celebratory gunfire and raising the green Hamas flag.
Some knelt in prayer and shouted “God is Great.”
Security offices were looted, along with the empty homes of Abbas and the Fatah strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan. He and other local Fatah leaders were outside of Gaza during the recent days of fighting.
“We are telling our people that the past era has ended and will not return,” Islam Shahwan, a spokesman for the Hamas militia, told the group’s radio station. “The era of justice and Islamic rule has arrived.”
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called his group’s victory a second liberation after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip two years ago. “This time it was liberated from the herds of the collaborators,” he said of Fatah, which has pursued talks with Israel.
With the capture of the main security bases in Gaza City, only Abbas’ compound, usually protected by the elite Presidential Guard, remained under Fatah control. But Palestinians reported that some commanders of the guard fled by sea to Egypt and Israel, and other officers escaped in civilian clothes. By the time Hamas forces arrived about midnight, there was little resistance and the area was easily overrun.
Earlier, dozens of Fatah officers stationed on the Egyptian border at the southern town of Rafah fled to Egypt as the city fell to Hamas forces. The Popular Resistance Committees, militants allied with Hamas, were said to be in control of the border crossing at a spot where military weapons frequently are smuggled into Gaza.
The clashes spilled into the West Bank, where Fatah gunmen rounded up more than 30 Hamas supporters and ransacked and burned a Hamas office in Nablus, tossing furniture out of windows. Early today, Hamas said one of its members had been killed in the city.
In his decree dismissing the government, Abbas called Hamas an “outlaw militia” that he said had waged a “criminal war” and an “armed rebellion.”
Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman, called the presidential decree illegal. “In practical terms these decisions are worthless,” he said. “Prime Minister Haniyeh remains the head of the government even if it was dissolved by the president.”
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the U.S. backed Abbas’ move to disband the government. “President Abbas has exercised his lawful authority as president of the Palestinian Authority, as leader of the Palestinian people,” she said.
Earlier, White House spokesman Tony Snow said that the situation in Gaza “is a source of profound concern” and he accused Hamas of “committing acts of terror, now against the Palestinian people.”
The new reality in Gaza could lead to a rethinking of policy in Israel and Washington regarding talks with the Palestinians.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Wednesday that a Hamas takeover in Gaza “will be significant … for the ability to reach agreements with (Abbas) and whether it would be possible to implement them in Gaza.”
Hamas has received support from Iran and Syria, two countries that are particularly antagonistic to Israel.