Hamas Bolsters Its Hold In Gaza

Palestinian civilians try to take cover behind a Fatah fighter during a clash in Gaza City. Hamas's armed wing is calling on Fatah loyalists to surrender weapons and facilities. At least 63 Palestinians have died in four days of violence.
Palestinian civilians try to take cover behind a Fatah fighter during a clash in Gaza City. Hamas's armed wing is calling on Fatah loyalists to surrender weapons and facilities. At least 63 Palestinians have died in four days of violence. (By Abid Katib -- Getty Images)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 14, 2007

JERUSALEM, June 13 -- Hamas gunmen consolidated their hold over large swaths of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday after attacking military posts controlled by the rival Fatah movement, whose own fighters responded with a daylight raid in the West Bank, broadening the civil strife.

At least 21 Palestinians were killed Wednesday across Gaza, driving up the four-day death toll to at least 63 in factional violence that both Palestinian parties described as civil war.

The Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military wing that has begun referring to Fatah as the "Jew American Army," gave the Fatah-dominated Palestinian National Forces across northern Gaza until Friday evening to surrender their weapons and turn over their posts. The Hamas tactic, which has included broadcasting inaccurate claims from minarets that Fatah posts have fallen, has proved highly effective in prompting outgunned Fatah fighters to flee.

At least one battalion of the Palestinian National Forces was reported to have run out of ammunition and others may be approaching the end of supplies. Israeli officials have warned for months that Hamas has been stockpiling ammunition, small arms and explosives.

Scores of Palestinians demonstrated in the streets of Gaza City calling for an end to the violence, to no apparent effect.

The volume and frequency of the clashes prompted the U.N. refugee agency to scale back operations in Gaza after two of its Palestinian employees were killed in crossfire.

"The situation there has never been more dire, and we must be able to get in to do our work," said Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which has suspended all but emergency food distribution and medical service to the roughly 1 million Palestinians in Gaza it serves.

The two largest Palestinian parties, each with potent militias and affiliated security services, have fought periodically since Hamas ended Fatah's long monopoly on political power by winning the parliamentary elections in January 2006. The victory gave Hamas control of the ministries, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah remains the titular head of the government.

Previous episodes of factional violence have been confined largely to Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians, and the fighting has generally lasted no longer than a week. But no period has been as intense or brutal as the current one, which has resisted Egyptian mediation attempts and fractured a power-sharing government formed in March.

Fatah and Hamas have fought for control of the various Palestinian security branches that each party claims the legal authority to run. Their broader ideological differences have made their struggle irreconcilable so far: Fatah, a secular movement that recognizes Israel, favors negotiations to achieve a Palestinian state; Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, which the United States, Israel and the European Union consider a terrorist organization, advocates Israel's destruction.

The Bush administration and Israel are openly backing forces loyal to Abbas, a relative moderate whose calls for an end to the fighting have been ignored by both sides. The Bush administration is sending $40 million to train and provide nonlethal equipment to forces loyal to Abbas, who told reporters Wednesday that it is "madness that is going on in Gaza."

The West Bank, the more populous Palestinian region, where Fatah is considered more powerful than Hamas, no longer appears immune from the factional strife.


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