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Abbas Dissolves Government As Hamas Takes Control of Gaza
Hamas, an armed Islamic movement that does not recognize Israel, and Fatah, a secular party that does, have fought periodically since Hamas defeated Fatah in January 2006 parliamentary elections. Hamas took control of the Palestinian ministries, prompting Western donors such as the United States and the European Union, which classify Hamas as a terrorist organization, to impose a financial embargo against the government. Abbas, a relative moderate, remained the government's titular head, with the power to fire the prime minister.
The parties have since battled, almost always within the Gaza Strip, for control of the various Palestinian security services that each claims the legal authority to run. The majority of those killed in recent days have belonged to the parties' armed wings or affiliated security services.
Ideological differences have also proved intractable, even after Hamas and Fatah formed a power-sharing government in March to end a previous round of fighting. Abbas has called for peace talks with Israel, while the Hamas charter calls for the Jewish state's destruction.
The fighting this week represents a sharp escalation in intensity, brutality and ambition on the part of Hamas forces, whose leaders have accused Fatah's security services of working on behalf of Israeli and American interests because of a $40 million U.S. aid package to strengthen Abbas's forces. Barhoum, the Hamas spokesman, said after the fighting Thursday, "Any American-Israeli project here in Palestine will now be defeated."
The Israeli government has openly supported Fatah forces against Hamas, whose tightening control of Gaza alarmed Israeli defense officials. "Gaza is now occupied by gangs of Islamic terrorists, and it has grave implications," said Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy defense minister. "We will not remain indifferent."
Early Thursday, Abbas ordered his presidential guard corps to take the offensive against Hamas forces. The order had little practical effect, as Hamas fighters far outnumber the presidential guard in Gaza.
But it signaled Abbas's willingness to join the widening factional fight at a time when some units loyal to Fatah were running out of ammunition, surrendering en masse and demolishing posts rather than turn them over to Hamas.
The presidential guard, comprising about 5,000 fighters, is the unit slated to receive the U.S. package of training and nonlethal military equipment. The money, arriving now, has prompted Hamas officials and fighters to refer to Fatah as the "Jew American Army" and "Zionist collaborators." In Palestinian society, being labeled a collaborator is sometimes a death sentence.
Abbas also endorsed a proposal by Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, that an international peacekeeping force be deployed in Gaza. The E.U. suspended humanitarian programs in Gaza and its monitoring mission at the Rafah crossing with Egypt on Thursday because of security concerns.
Sami Abu Zouhri, another Hamas spokesman, said that "any foreign forces that enter Gaza, regardless of their nationality, will be regarded as occupation forces. The sole purpose of this would be to crush the resistance forces and serve the Israeli occupation."
Around midday, Hamas forces seized the Fatah-run Preventive Security headquarters in the center of Gaza City, a major strategic and symbolic step for the movement. The Preventive Security Service was established by Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah leader from the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis who is now Abbas's national security adviser, in the early 1990s after Fatah backed the Oslo accords with Israel.
Hamas opposed the agreement, which established the Palestinian Authority. At the time, Preventive Security agents rounded up scores of Hamas followers, many of whom later said they were tortured in buildings such as the one its fighters seized on Thursday.