Hamas Pounds Fatah In Fight For Gaza

Palestinians carry a wounded man during clashes between security members and militants of Hamas radical Islamist movement in Gaza City, 13 June 2007.
Hamas fighters launched a fierce offensive on Gaza City on Wednesday, attacking the main security bases and the president's compound with mortars and rockets and sending some of the rival Fatah forces fleeing in disarray as the Islamic group appeared close to taking over the entire Gaza Strip.

With the fighting raging on rooftops and streets in nearly all corners of Gaza, residents huddled in fear in their homes, hoping to keep their families safe from stray bullets and shrapnel.

Fayez Abu Taha, 45, a businessman in the southern town of Rafah, said he was trapped in his apartment building with his family after Hamas fighters took over a nearby rooftop and Fatah responded by taking over the roof of his building.

"I don't know what they are battling for now," he said. "I can see the bullets flying from my windows. Coming and going."

Maha Baraakat and her family have been trapped in their Gaza home since the fighting began. She contends that fighting is not a civil war, reports CBS News correspondent Richard Roth.

"It is a distinctly Hamas-Fatah clash going on; It's Fatah on Hamas. The citizens are staying out of this ... it's basically a fight for power," said Baraakat

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah called the fighting "madness" and pleaded with Hamas' exiled leader for a halt to the violence. Abbas' forces — desperately trying to cling to their besieged bases in Gaza — lashed out at the president, saying he left them with no directions and no support in the fight.

In other developments:

    Israeli elder statesman Shimon Peres (left, placing a prayer in the Western Wall in Jerusalem) will cap his six-decade political career as president. He takes office July 15, at the age of 83, for a seven-year term, following his election Wednesday by the parliament.
  • Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister tossed out of office six years ago in a humiliating election defeat, won the leadership of the dovish Labor Party on Wednesday in a dramatic political comeback. Barak now begins the race for the real prize — a return to the nation's top job, which he held for less than two years. First, however, Barak is expected to replace Amir Peretz as defense minister in Olmert's Cabinet.
  • Because of the violence, the U.N. refugee agency announced Wednesday it is scaling back its operations in Gaza immediately.
  • The European Union would consider participating in an international force in Gaza if asked by the major players in the region, the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana said Wednesday. He spoke in response to a suggestion by Israeli Prime Minister Olmert that international forces could be stationed along the Gaza Strip's volatile border with Egypt to prevent arms from reaching Palestinian militants.

    Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas issued a joint statement after nightfall, calling on all sides "to halt fighting, and to return to language of dialogue and respect of agreements," according to a statement from Abbas' office. The call was broadcast on Palestinian TV.

    The two have made numerous calls for an end to the fighting in the past, to no avail.

    Hamas radio denied the two had reached a truce agreement, and clashes increased in intensity in the hour after the statement was broadcast.

    No one was listening to the elected leaders as the focus of power passed to street militias. Hamas gunmen neutralized recognized security forces linked to Fatah in frontal assaults on their strong points, ruling the streets and taking control of large parts Gaza in the process.

    The rout of the security forces was so bad that 40 Palestinian security officers broke through the border fence in Rafah and fled into Egypt seeking safety, Egyptian police said.

    "What I can I say? This is a fall, a collapse," said Col. Nasser Khaldi, a senior police official in Rafah.

    In Washington, U.S. officials condemned the fighting. "Violence certainly does not serve the interest of the Palestinian people, and it's not going to bring the peace and prosperity that they deserve," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.