Hamas Consolidates Hold on Gaza, Rounds up Fatah Leadership

Published June 15, 2007

| Associated Press

On Hamas' first day of full rule in Gaza, crowds looted strongholds of the rival Fatah on Friday — stripping the home of one of the party's strongmen down to the flower pots — and militants sent a man plunging to his death from a rooftop.

But the violence, which came despite a Hamas offer of amnesty for Fatah, was sporadic. Gaza's streets, deserted in the past week of fighting, were crowded with cars, pedestrians and triumphant fighters with the Islamic militant group.

At Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' captured seaside office in Gaza City, a gunman sat down at the Fatah leader's desk, picked up the phone and pretended to be calling Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "Hello, Rice?" the gunman said. "Here we are in Abu Mazen's office. Say hello to Abu Mazen for me." Other gunmen rifled through Abbas' belongings in a bedroom behind the office, lifting up a mattress and searching through drawers.

Safe in Ramallah, Abbas appointed his own prime minister on Friday after the Hamas prime minister ignored the president's announcement that he had been fired. Hamas' military takeover of Gaza, after five days of battle, formalized the separation between Gaza and the West Bank, which lie on either side of Israel.

The moderate government Abbas plans to appoint will have no say in Gaza, but stands a stronger chance than the Hamas-Fatah coalition it replaces of restoring foreign aid to the West Bank. He drew support — either explicitly or tacitly — from the European Union, the U.N., Egypt and Jordan.

A resident of a Hamas-dominated neighborhood, identifying himself only as Yousef for fear of reprisal by his neighbors, said Gazans would always back the winner, regardless of ideology.

"Today everybody is with Hamas because Hamas won the battle. If Fatah had won the battle they'd be with Fatah. We are a hungry people, we are with whoever gives us a bag of flour and a food coupon," said Yousef, 30. "Me, I'm with God and a bag of flour."

Palestinians in the West Bank viewed the Hamas takeover of Gaza with a mixture of fear and hope — realizing that it could bring needed foreign aid while dealing a major blow to dreams of Palestinian statehood.

Ahmed al-Aziz, a 53-year-old merchant in Ramallah, said the fenced-in Gazans have little to lose. "Everybody here is worried about his interests or his business. In Gaza, people are poor. They don't have work," he said.

Fleeing aboard a fishing boat on the Mediterranean, 97 senior members of Fatah's security and administrative apparatus arrived in Egypt hours after Hamas fighters took control of Gaza, an Egyptian security official in the port city of El-Arish said. Israel's Channel Two TV said Israel was briefly opening the Erez crossing into Israel to enable other Fatah leaders to escape.

Gazans awoke to the new reality of Hamas control, fraught with uncertainty and fear that they'll become even poorer and more isolated. Gaza's crossings with Egypt and Israel — lifelines for the fenced-in territory — have been closed this week, and it was not clear if they would reopen. Extended closure could quickly lead to a humanitarian crisis.

Because Fatah recognizes Israel and past peace agreements, a boycott of the Palestinian government imposed by Israel and the international community after Hamas' electoral successes may no longer apply to the West Bank — only Gaza.

A Hamas spokesman said Palestinian police, now under Hamas command, would take up positions at the crossings, but it's unlikely Israel would agree: Hamas militants frequently attacked the passages in the past.

The house of former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, a longtime nemesis of Hamas, was overrun, and looters stripped it of everything from windows and doors to flowerpots. "This was the house of the murderer Dahlan that was cleansed by the holy warriors," read graffiti sprayed on the wall. Donkey carts outside the house waited to take on more loot.

More than 90 people were killed in five days of fighting, and dozens wounded.

The morgue at Gaza City's main Shifa Hospital was overflowing, with bodies lined up on the floor; some of the wounded were sleeping on cardboard on the floor.

Earlier Friday, Hamas announced it had arrested 10 of the most senior Fatah leaders in the strip, including the commanders of Abbas' own elite guard unit and the chief of the National Security force, but it later declared an amnesty for all Fatah leaders, and freed nine of them.

Two revenge killings were reported.

Hamas said a Fatah man was thrown off a rooftop, to his death, in a family revenge slaying. In southern Gaza, a Fatah fighter was shot and killed by Hamas gunmen.

In all, about a dozen Fatah fighters were executed, gang-land style, since Gaza fell to Hamas late Thursday, according to people with ties to Fatah. Among those killed was Samih Madhoun, a leader of a feared militia, whose bullet-riddled body was found Thursday evening. Madhoun was captured by Hamas at a roadblock, and Hamas posted a photo of the blood-covered corpse, sprawled on the ground, on its Web site.

Still, Hamas also sent conciliatory signals. Abu Obeideh called for the immediate release of Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist who was kidnapped in March and is believed held by a powerful Gaza clan whose members had ties to both Hamas and Fatah. "We will not allow for his continued detention," Abu Obeideh said of Johnston.

The battle for Gaza ended Thursday night when Hamas forces took the last Fatah stronghold, the seaside office complex of Abbas. The Fatah forces had collapsed quickly under Hamas' systematic onslaught. One by one, Hamas seized Fatah facilities and marched Fatah fighters down the street shirtless and with hands raised.

Fearful that Hamas' momentum could spread to the West Bank, Fatah-allied forces there staged a show of force — driving through central Ramallah in pickup trucks, their rifles raised. In Nablus, Fatah men shot dead a Hamas member early Friday, Hamas said.

The stage for the struggle between Fatah and Hamas was set last year, when Hamas won parliamentary elections. Hamas reluctantly brought Fatah into a coalition government in March to quell an earlier round of violence, but the uneasy partnership began crumbling last month over control of security forces.

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