GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Hamas forces reportedly captured the headquarters of the Fatah-allied security forces in northern Gaza on Tuesday, seizing a key prize in the bloody battle for control of Gaza and pushing the area closer to all-out civil war.
However, FOX News' Jerusalem bureau reported that although multiple attempts to take over the security headquarters had been made, they were unsuccessful.
President Mahmoud Abbas accused the Islamic militants of trying to stage a coup, and leaders of his Fatah movement urged him to declare a state of emergency.
Battles raged across the strip Tuesday, and the two-day death toll rose to 34, as Hamas systematically encircled Fatah strongholds and overran several. The staccato of gunfire echoed across Gaza City, plumes of smoke rose into the air from far-flung neighborhoods and one battle sent a dozen preschoolers scrambling for cover.
In one desperate attempt to boost morale, disorganized Fatah forces attacked Hamas' main TV station, but were repelled after a heavy battle. Earlier, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the home of the Hamas prime minister, causing no injuries.
In the West Bank, Abbas was meeting with Fatah movement leaders, some of whom urged him to leave the coalition government with Hamas, established three months ago, declare a state of emergency, which would give him sweeping powers, or call early elections. However, none of the options was appealing, and was likely to lead only to more turmoil.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed stationing international forces along the Gaza Strip's volatile border with Egypt to prevent arms from reaching Palestinian militants, including Hamas. However, he ruled out assistance to Abbas' forces.
Hamas and Fatah have waged a power struggle in fits and spurts for the past year since Hamas won parliament elections, and Hamas was signaling Tuesday that it was moving into a decisive phase. It ignored pleas by Abbas and exasperated Egyptian mediators to honor a cease-fire, and appeared to be moving ahead according to a plan.
"Decisiveness will be in the field," said Islam Shahwan, spokesman for the Hamas military wing.
In contrast, Fatah commanders complained they were not given clear orders by Abbas to fight back and that they had no central command. Fatah's strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, has spent the last few weeks in Cairo for treatment of a knee injury. Other leading Fatah officials left Gaza for the West Bank after previous rounds of bloodshed.
"There's a difference between leading on the ground and leading by mobile phone," police Col. Nasser Khaldi said of Dahlan's absence. "Hamas is just taking over our positions. There are no orders," he added.
Both sides have been arming themselves in recent weeks, smuggling weapons through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
Abbas on Tuesday accused Hamas leaders of trying to seize control of Gaza by force.
The headquarters of the Fatah-allied security forces in northern Gaza, a strategic prize for Hamas, was taken by the Islamic militants after several hours of battle. Some 200 Hamas fighters had fired mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at the compound, where some 500 Fatah loyalists were holed up and returned fire. Thirty-five jeeploads of Fatah fighters were sent as reinforcements. After nightfall, Hamas seized control, said a Hamas commander, Wael al-Shakra.
A Fatah security official confirmed the building had been lost. He said nine people were killed and 30 wounded.
Earlier, Hamas fighters also overran several smaller Fatah positions in Gaza.
Hamas gunmen also exchanged fire with Fatah forces at the southern security headquarters, in the town of Khan Younis, but had not yet launched a major assault. The town's streets were empty as people huddled indoors for shelter. One Hamas man was killed, according to Hamas and medical officials.
In Gaza City, Hamas fired mortars and explosives at the pro-Fatah Preventive Security headquarters, drawing return fire from watchtowers in the compound. Elsewhere, Fatah fighters killed four Hamas gunmen in a battle near the besieged house of a senior Fatah commander.
Hamas and Fatah have been at odds since Hamas defeated Fatah in January 2006 legislative elections, ending four decades of Fatah rule.
The sides agreed to share power in an uneasy coalition three months ago, but put off key disputes, including wrangling over control of the security forces. Most of the forces are dominated by Fatah loyalists, while Hamas has formed its own militia, in addition to the thousands of gunmen at its command.
Beverley Milton-Edwards, a Hamas expert at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, said Gaza is heading for a final showdown. "This has become the existential battle for soul of Palestinian people," she said.
In recent days, the fighting has grown increasingly brutal. Some people were shot at close range in street executions, while others were thrown from rooftops. Residents huddled indoors, and university exams were canceled. In all, more than 80 people have been killed since mid-May, most of them militants.
The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, warning of a "very dangerous security situation" in Gaza, advised journalists not to travel there. They also urged journalists who are already there to leave.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.