By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 15, 2007
JERUSALEM, June 15 -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the Palestinian government Thursday and declared a state of emergency after rival Hamas forces took complete control of the Gaza Strip in what the Islamic movement called the territory's "liberation."
In a presidential decree, Abbas fired Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and suggested that new national elections would occur soon. Abbas's decision ends the three-month-old power-sharing arrangement between his Fatah movement and Hamas, the two main Palestinian political parties.
Haniyeh, in a response delivered early Friday, said Abbas had not considered the "consequences" of his decision and pledged to continue to work with his Fatah "brothers." Other Hamas officials said Abbas's ruling had no legal effect.
Hamas's military victory, after five days of fighting that left nearly 100 Palestinians dead, has deepened the political and cultural separation between the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip, many of whose 1.4 million residents are poor refugees, and the more populous West Bank, Fatah's power base.
The territorial cornerstones of a future Palestinian state have been reduced to strongholds of each faction. A Hamas radio station quoted fighters Thursday saying their military campaign was the first step in establishing an Islamic state in Gaza, a claim party officials denied.
"Gaza is out of control, and in my mind it's a coup that has happened there," said Saeb Erekat, a Fatah lawmaker from the West Bank who is the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel. "The decision Hamas has made in recent days has torn Gaza from the West Bank."
Haniyeh struck a reassuring tone in his speech, saying that "the Gaza Strip is an indivisible part of the Palestinian homeland."
Abbas failed to act on previous threats to dissolve the Hamas-led cabinet, and his move to do so now underscores the sense of crisis facing the Palestinian national movement.
His decision came after Hamas forces seized Fatah-controlled security compounds in Gaza City and the southern city of Rafah. At least 25 Palestinians died Thursday in fighting that stretched across the strip.
At day's end, masked Hamas fighters declared their swift rout of Fatah forces "the second liberation of Gaza," a reference to Israel's September 2005 evacuation of settlements and military positions.
"This is a victory not only for Hamas but for all Palestinians," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. "The first liberation was from the occupation. This liberation is from these Fatah militias supported by our enemies."
Until Abbas's decision, Fatah leaders had been grasping for ways to end the factional fighting, which officials from both parties have called civil war.
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.
Witnesses said Hamas fighters led Fatah officers from the building at gunpoint -- some shirtless, others injured, with hands raised. Some Hamas men fell to their knees and prayed. Another group raised the green Hamas banner over the compound.
Palestinian hospital officials said at least 14 people were killed and 70 wounded in the fight for the Preventive Security headquarters, an hours-long barrage of mortar and small-arms fire. Hamas officials said four of their fighters were killed and at least seven Fatah officers died.
Hours later, marching methodically toward the sea, Hamas gunmen overran the principal Palestinian intelligence headquarters in Gaza City. The seaside presidential guard compound and a nearby Palestinian National Forces post fell just after midnight.
In the West Bank, there were reports of Fatah gunmen vandalizing Hamas-affiliated offices and seizing supporters in several major cities. The Associated Press reported that a Hamas activist was shot and killed in Nablus.
Bassem Barhoum, a spokesman in Ramallah for the Palestinian parliament, said that "it appears Abbas and his aides have decided not to respond to Hamas in the West Bank, at least not in an organized way." But he said that Hamas has been stockpiling weapons and that the price of an AK-47 assault rifle in the West Bank has nearly tripled over the past year to $3,000.
"There's a big market for them right now," Barhoum said.
Special correspondent Islam Abdelkareem in Gaza contributed to this report.