Hundreds flee Hamas-run Gaza amid spillover fears

GAZA Sat Jun 16, 2007 6:55pm EDT

1 of 8. Palestinian families leave Gaza through the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel, June 16, 2007. Hundreds of Fatah loyalists fled Hamas-controlled Gaza by land and sea on Saturday as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prepared to swear in a new government in the West Bank that will bring an end to a U.S.-led aid embargo.

Credit: Reuters/Mohammed Salem

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GAZA (Reuters) - Hundreds of Fatah supporters fled the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip by land and sea on Saturday and the Islamist group threatened to take its fight against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's forces to the West Bank.

Abbas, who leads the secular Fatah faction, is set to swear in an emergency government on Sunday at 1 p.m. (6:00 a.m. EDT) that will bring an end to a U.S.-led aid embargo.

Prime Minister-designate Salam Fayyad has selected 14 ministers to serve in his cabinet, officials said. Hamas says the cabinet's appointment amounts to a coup.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the new government to be led by Prime Minister-designate Salam Fayyad could be a partner for peace negotiations.

"(The current situation) presents an opportunity that has not existed for a long time ... This opens opportunities," Olmert said.

Olmert said that the situation in the Palestinian territories had "become clearer" and that it would be "advantageous" for the Palestinians because Hamas was no longer a member of the government.

Abbas sacked a Hamas-led unity government after Islamist forces routed Fatah in the Gaza Strip and began imposing a new order and making key security appointments.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said 150 Hamas supporters were "abducted" in the occupied West Bank in what he called acts of "real terrorism" by Fatah forces there. "We will not stand handcuffed against these crimes in the West Bank. We will take all steps to secure an end to these crimes," he said.

The U.S. consul-general who handles relations with the Palestinians said Washington would lift a ban on direct financial aid to the new emergency government, clearing the way for the European Union and Israel to follow suit.

"There won't be any obstacles economically and politically in terms of re-engaging with this government ... They will have full support," Jacob Walles told Reuters after meeting Abbas at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, near Jerusalem.

QUARTET SUPPORT

The Quartet of Middle East peace mediators -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- voiced support for Abbas and concern about humanitarian conditions in Gaza, but did not say whether it would ease its ban on direct aid to an Abbas-controlled Palestinian Authority.

Gaza and the much larger West Bank are only about 45 km (30 miles) apart, with Israel in between, but they now appear poised to function as two separate territories.

"Gaza, unfortunately at this stage, is out of the control of the Palestinian Authority," Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said.

Hamas said it did not seek its own state in Gaza, where 1.5 million people are crowded along 40 km (25 miles) of coast.

Western powers imposed an aid embargo after Hamas came to power in March 2006 because it failed to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept interim peace deals.

Hamas set up checkpoints in Gaza to prevent high-ranking Fatah officials from leaving the enclave.

Palestinian officials said hundreds of Fatah supporters were allowed by Israel and Egypt to travel to the West Bank.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said Israel had allowed people to leave Gaza for the West Bank on a case-by-case basis but the border was later closed.

"I will not live in a Hamas-run state," said Shadi, a fighter from Abbas's Fatah faction, after escaping Gaza for the West Bank through an Israeli crossing point.

About 50 Fatah gunmen and 200 other demonstrators stormed a Palestinian parliament building in Ramallah. The militants grabbed the deputy speaker, who is aligned with Hamas, and dragged him outside, witnesses said. He was not hurt.

In Hebron, another West Bank city, militants of al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Fatah, stormed government offices and set up checkpoints to search for Hamas members.

Many Fatah supporters in Gaza fear reprisals from Hamas. "We were destroyed ... I feel lost," said Umm Rami, whose husband is a colonel in the Fatah-dominated National Security Forces.

A Fatah supporter was killed accidentally by gunfire during a scuffle near the central Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis as Hamas gunmen arrived to round up arms belonging to the rival group, hospital workers and residents said.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller en route to the United States, Wafa Amr in Ramallah and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem)

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