Gaza turmoil prompts Abbas to dissolve government
JERUSALEM: The Palestinian territories seemed headed Thursday to a turbulent political divide. Masked Hamas gunmen took control of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian president dissolved the three-month-old unity government, declaring a state of emergency and plans for elections.
An aide to President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah announced the decrees, including the firing of Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas, at a West Bank news conference after Hamas militias overran Fatah strongholds in Gaza, dragging men into the street and shooting them.
The territories that President George W. Bush said he wanted to see become a state before he left office appeared torn asunder.
With Hamas controlling Gaza, it was not clear whether Abbas had the power to carry out his decrees. A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, dismissed them. "Prime Minister Haniya remains the head of the government even if it was dissolved by the president," Zuhri said. "In practical terms, these decisions are worthless."
Even Abbas's supporters were dubious. "An emergency government would be meaningless here," said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at the Fatah-affiliated Al Azhar University in Gaza. "It wouldn't be able to do anything. Hamas is everywhere. That's the bottom line."
The scene in Gaza was one of prayerful celebration for Hamas mixed with revenge. Hamas fighters took over the Fatah-run Preventive Security compound, driving away in cars loaded with weapons, computers, office furniture and other equipment.
Bystanders were shocked. Ghassan Hashem, 37, a civil servant, said, "I see Iraq here. There is no mercy. We are afraid. See how ferocious this fight was? There is no future for us."
Islam Shahwan, a spokesman for the Hamas militia, told Hamas radio triumphantly: "The era of justice and Islamic rule have arrived."
The prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, said: "I call on my friend Abu Mazen," referring to Abbas, who was in Ramallah, "to take the opportunity, now that almost the entire world understands the viciousness, the brutality of Hamas, to exercise his authority as the leader of the Palestinian people."
Israel will do what it can, Olmert said in an interview, to "be helpful and supportive of the Palestinian people in every possible way, including economic cooperation and security cooperation."
Olmert will travel to Washington over the weekend for talks with Bush, which will focus on the collapse of Fatah in Gaza and Abbas's chances of success. Olmert is expected to tell Bush that Israel favored sealing off the West Bank from the turmoil in Gaza, continuing to prevent contact between the two territories.
In security terms, Israel would like to seal off Gaza from the West Bank as much as possible, to prevent the spread of Hamas military power there, where Israeli troops still occupy the territory. Israel would also like to confront Hamas with the responsibility for governing Gaza — providing jobs and food and security to people.
Israeli officials suggested that Israel would work with Abbas and a Fatah government in the West Bank, and could gradually hand over to it the remaining Palestinian tax moneys, about $562 million, withheld since Hamas took power a year ago in March. "To give the money to a Hamas government would be reckless," one senior Israeli official said. "To give it to a Fatah government is an opportunity."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed support for Abbas's decrees, saying he had "exercised his lawful authority." Since Fatah conforms to the international conditions — accepting Israel's right to exist, all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and forswears violence — a government run by it without Hamas would presumably not be subject to international isolation and restrictions.
The United States, Israel and the European Union consider Hamas, which seeks Israel's destruction, a terrorist group. But it may be very difficult for the United States and the European Union to stop aiding the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, no matter who their rulers, and divert all aid through Abbas, who would have little influence in Gaza.
Some on the Israeli right suggest Gaza is lost and should be treated like southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah rules another kind of mini, semi-state.
But some Palestinians believe that Fatah and Hamas may also come together again. Abbas says the emergency government will rule until new elections are possible — but Hamas will not accept early elections. And it may be that another Arab government, like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, will soon step in to try to patch together the nascent Palestinian state, which is in danger of collapsing.
Palestinians are unlikely to want to give up the idea of a Palestinian nation in both areas, with East Jerusalem as its capital. And Hamas has a significant number of followers in the West Bank, too, even if its fighters are far less well equipped and largely stay underground because of the Israeli occupation.
Hamas argues that it has purged the security forces of "corrupted elements" who were in league with Israel and the United States to harm the group. Hamas wants a restored unity government where the security forces would all report to the interior minister, effectively meaning Fatah would give up much of its remaining power.
In Gaza, Hamas began to settle scores. Its men executed a senior Fatah commander in the north, Samih al-Madhoun, who had vowed on the radio to kill scores of Hamas members. He was captured in an exchange of fire, brought to the house of a Hamas fighter killed in the exchange and executed, Hamas said.
More evident was the lack of Fatah leaders or commanders on the ground. The Gaza strongman Muhammad Dahlan, the former chief of Gaza's Preventive Security who is now Abbas's national security adviser, has been abroad for weeks for medical treatment. He returned to Ramallah on Thursday. His close ally, General Rashid Abu Shbak, another former Preventive Security chief, is also outside the Gaza Strip, and the current Preventive Security head, Yussef Issa, was nowhere to be seen as the compound fell.
Of the few prominent Fatah figures left in Gaza, said to be on a Hamas hit list, some were escaping by boat to the Egyptian border.
Preventive Security cracked down on Hamas in 1996, led by Dahlan. Many of those who were imprisoned remember the treatment they received as cruel and humiliating.
"The Preventive Security has a special meaning for Hamas," said Zuhri. "Our fighters were tortured and killed inside."
He told reporters that the fall of the compound was "the second liberation of the Gaza Strip." The first time, he said, "It was liberated from the herds of the settlers," referring to Israel's withdrawal of all troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005. "This time it was liberated from the herds of the collaborators," he said of Fatah.
The battle for the Preventive Security compound lasted 24 hours, and neighbors said they saw members of the force who surrendered being shot in the legs. Others reported having witnessed executions.
According to Dr. Muawiya Hassanein, head of the emergency medical service in Gaza, 27 Palestinians were killed in the violence on Thursday.
Gaza has become increasingly cut off from the world and from key supplies.
All crossings from Israel and Egypt were closed because of the fighting, said Shlomo Dror, speaking for the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories, the Israeli agency that deals with the Palestinians.
Palestinians are not working on their side of the crossings, he said, and the Palestinian in charge of the Karni crossing, the main goods terminal to and from Israel, has been kidnapped. Karni has been closed since June 9.
Electricity and water continue to flow into Gaza from Israel and Egypt, but Dror said fuel oil was running low and could disrupt electricity generation in two days.
The International Committee of the Red Cross managed to bring in a small convoy of vehicles with blood supplies, Dror said, and nearly 150 Gaza businessmen left the territory on Thursday morning, "But we don't know if they'll be allowed to come back," he said.
Concern was mounting both inside and outside the Gaza Strip over the welfare of its 1.5 million residents, many of whom are already impoverished. The European Union announced it was suspending its aid projects there, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which helps the 70 percent of Gazans who are refugees or their descendants, said Wednesday that it was curtailing its operations until the fighting stopped.
"I don't know if Hamas has a strategy for the day after," said Abusada, the political scientist, adding, "There are more questions than answers."
There was talk both in Abbas's headquarters and among worried Palestinians in Gaza about requesting an international force to come to Gaza.
"This is the beginning of the separation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank," said Abusada, referring to the two Palestinian territories that were eventually supposed to make up an independent Palestinian state.
"This is the lowest point in our struggle. We Palestinians are writing the final chapters of our national enterprise," he said.