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Hamas, Fatah Launch Separate Governments
The Palestinian economy has plummeted, and the government has been unable to fully pay salaries for months. The crisis has squeezed Hamas's power base in Gaza hardest because a far larger portion of the strip's 1.4 million residents rely on government paychecks than in the West Bank.
"We're evaluating what this new reality will mean," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "This is not just a challenge for Israel, but also for the international community as a whole."
The Bush administration has pressed Israel to work with Abbas and might ask Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during a White House meeting next week to release hundreds of millions of dollars in frozen Palestinian tax revenue so Abbas could make up back salaries.
That would help him consolidate support in the West Bank, where on Friday gunmen from Fatah kidnapped at least nine Hamas supporters and ransacked the party's local legislative offices and social service centers in several major cities. The split between Hamas and Fatah in the government, Regev said, "may open options for us to work with moderate Palestinians."
For the first time in days, Gaza residents emerged from their homes to buy food, walk in streets free of roadblocks and celebrate Hamas's victory in raucous demonstrations. Gazans visited some of the battered former Fatah security posts and Abbas's seaside presidential compound, which Hamas gunmen had vandalized after seizing control of it Thursday.
Early Friday, Hamas gunmen rounded up senior Fatah leaders in Gaza, including the heads of the presidential guard and the Palestinian National Forces and the party's general secretary in the strip. Raising fears that they would begin dispensing victor's justice, Hamas officials called the prisoners "treacherous collaborators," a label suggesting a person had worked with Israel. The label often means a death sentence in the Palestinian territories.
But a few hours after seizing at least four senior Fatah officials and six others from the party, Hamas gunmen announced a general amnesty for all Fatah forces. The spokesman for Hamas's military wing, who is known as Abu Obeida, said in Gaza, "The spirit of Islam imposes upon us the amnesty of all those whom we arrested successfully."
Hamas supporters also ransacked the Gaza home of Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas's national security adviser, who led a crackdown against the radical Islamic movement in the 1990s. Witnesses said looters overran the house and hauled away many items.
Although the Fatah-run security forces in Gaza outnumbered Hamas's paramilitary force and military wing, they crumbled quickly in fighting that reached from one end of the strip to the other. Some Fatah units ran out of ammunition, and others fled after blowing up their bases rather than hand them over to Hamas.
Israeli officials said Abbas did not seek permission to send weapons and ammunition into Gaza during the fighting. Such a request would probably have met with resistance from Israeli military leaders fearful that the equipment would eventually fall into Hamas's hands.
Israel kept all crossings into Gaza closed, citing security concerns and the fact that Fatah officials who used to coordinate pedestrian and cargo crossings are no longer at their posts. Relief groups and diplomats warned of an impending humanitarian crisis in Gaza unless supplies could be brought in soon.
Israeli officials are particularly concerned about the Gaza-Egypt border, a sandy frontier and smuggling route patrolled by Israeli forces before they evacuated the strip in the fall of 2005. Hamas uses tunnels beneath the border to bring in weapons, ammunition and explosives, Israeli military officials say.
The E.U. observer mission at the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt left its post Thursday, and Hamas officials said Friday they would begin patrolling the frontier. Israeli officials have called for an international force along the border, but Hamas officials have dismissed the idea.
"If you have militants on one side there, how do you control what goes in and out?" Regev said.
Special correspondent Islam Abdelkareem in Gaza contributed to this report.