Gaza Fighting Kills Palestinian Coalition

A Palestinian militant from Hamas stands on the roof of the Palestinian Intelligence headquarters after they captured it from Fatah loyalist security forces in Gaza City, Thursday June 14, 2007. AP

Beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency and disbanded the Hamas-led unity government after the Islamic militant group vanquished its Fatah rivals and effectively took control of the Gaza Strip on Thursday.

Fearful that Hamas' momentum could spread to the West Bank, Fatah went on the offensive there, rounding up three dozen Hamas fighters. Angry militants threw office furniture out a third-story window of the Palestinian parliament building in Ramallah, then set fire to the office of three Hamas lawmakers.

A Hamas activist was shot and killed in Nablus, the first person to be killed in the West Bank after days of violence in Gaza; the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent Fatah offshoot, claimed responsibility.

It was a day of major victories for Hamas and its backers in Iran and Syria — and of devastating setbacks for the Western-backed Fatah.

On TV, Hamas publicly humiliated its enemies, showing the capture of Fatah holdouts, reports CBS News correspondent Richard Roth.

In one particularly humiliating scene, masked Hamas fighters marched agents of the once-feared Preventive Security Service out of their headquarters, arms raised in the air, stripped to the waist and ducking at the sound of a gunshot.

What Hamas didn't broadcast were the brutal streetside executions, adds Roth.

Witnesses, Fatah officials and a doctor reported executions by Hamas militants of defeated Fatah fighters; Fatah said seven of its men were shot in the head, gangland-style. Hamas denied any such killings.

The violence has killed at least 90 people in the past five days, including 33 on Thursday alone.

Abbas, of Fatah, fired the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and said he would install a new government, replacing the Hamas-Fatah coalition formed just three months ago. Abbas' decrees won't reverse the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Instead, his moves will enable Fatah to consolidate its control over the West Bank, likely paving the way for two separate Palestinian governments.

Haniyeh said that Abbas' decision to fire him and his government over Gaza violence was "hasty." Haniyeh told a late-night Gaza news conference that Abbas and his advisers did not consider "the consequences (of the decision) and its effects on the situation on the ground."

Because Fatah has recognized Israel's right to exist and signed on to past peace agreements, the international community's boycott of the Palestinian territories in the wake of Hamas' electoral successes may no longer apply to the West Bank, just to Gaza. Some 2 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, while 1.4 million reside in Gaza.

Hamas' success has thrown into turmoil everything from Mideast peacemaking to Palestinian statehood to relations with Israel and the West.

"The era of justice and Islamic rule has arrived," Hamas spokesman Islam Shahawan said.

Fatah's old demons — corruption, petty quarreling, lack of leadership — led to its dismal performance. While disciplined Hamas systematically hoarded weapons, Fatah's Gaza leader, Mohammed Dahlan, preferred travel and West Bank politics to preparing for the inevitable showdown with its rival. Dahlan returned Thursday from Egypt, where he stayed several weeks after knee surgery. But instead of going to Gaza, he headed for Ramallah.

In other developments:

  • In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States backs Abbas' move. Abbas informed Rice of his decision in a phone call earlier Thursday. "President Abbas has exercised his lawful authority as president of the Palestinian Authority, as leader of the Palestinian people," Rice said. "We fully support him in his decision to try and end this crisis for the Palestinian people and to give them an opportunity ... to return to peace and a better future."

  • The European Commission suspended tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid projects in the Gaza Strip because of the escalating violence, a day after the U.N. announced it would scale back its relief projects there.

  • Hamas security officials said Thursday that an Israeli tank shell killed five children riding in a car near the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah. The Israeli army denied its forces had fired in the area.

  • A meeting of foreign ministers of Arab League countries will be held on Friday to discuss the factional violence, officials said on Thursday.

  • Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz vowed not to let the takeover of Gaza spill over into violence against Israel. Some Israelis said only a Gaza invasion could curb Hamas' military power. But for now, the government seems more inclined to stay out, fearful of inviting more rocket attacks on southern Israel.

  • About 440 Sudanese refugees are working in Israeli hotels and on farms while the government seeks to place them in a third country. Most have fled southern Sudan, where a 22-year conflict left 2.5 million people dead. Others are from Darfur, where a rebellion has cost more than 200,000 civilian lives and made 2.5 million homeless.

    • Lloyd Vries

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