GAZA (Reuters) - Hamas fighters on Thursday captured one of the last bastions of forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamists declared the “liberation” of the Gaza Strip.
Green Hamas flags fluttered from the rooftop of the Preventive Security headquarters in Gaza City — a powerful symbol that Hamas had taken charge after six days of bloodshed in which more than 100 gunmen and civilians have been killed.
At least 20 Palestinians were killed in fighting across Gaza on Thursday, hospital officials said, including 18 Hamas men whose bodies were found in Preventive Security compound.
The fighting brought Palestinians closer to division between an Islamist-controlled Gaza Strip and a West Bank where Abbas’s Fatah faction holds sway — and farther from their dream of an independent state in both areas.
Abbas was set to formalize the split by dismissing a three-month-old unity government with Hamas and putting himself in charge of an emergency cabinet, aides said.
For Hamas fighters, in their camouflage uniforms, the fall of the security headquarters was a cause for celebration. They fired gunshots in the air to seal their victory and handed out chocolates to local people in the coastal enclave.
In a statement of victory, Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri declared in Gaza: “What happened today in the Preventive Security headquarters was the second liberation of the Gaza Strip, this time from the herds of collaborators,” the first being Israel’s 2005 pullout of troops and Jewish settlers.
Stripped to the waist, several defenders, their hands raised in surrender, were herded out of the compound by their Hamas captors. Their fate was unclear, although Hamas officials said fighters had orders to kill certain Fatah leaders and there were unconfirmed reports, as in recent days, of prisoners being shot.
Hamas also captured an intelligence base and continued to pound Abbas’s presidential compound in Gaza City and another Fatah stronghold with mortars, though both remained under Fatah control.
The Islamist group said it had swept control of still other Fatah strongholds across Gaza, including a security office in the southern town of Rafah on the Egyptian border. Fatah’s radio station shut its broadcasts out of Gaza City.
Some Fatah gunmen retaliated against Hamas in the West Bank, shooting and wounding a Hamas man near Ramallah, seizing Hamas gunmen in the towns of Jenin and in Nablus, where they also stormed a Hamas office and hurled its computers out the window.
Abbas was poised, aides said, to dissolve the Hamas-led “unity government” that Fatah joined in March under a Saudi-brokered deal aimed at ending internal violence and easing Western sanctions for Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel.
A senior official close to Abbas told Reuters he wanted to head an emergency cabinet himself, a move that could effectively divide control over the two Palestinian territories.
“Gaza is lost,” one senior Abbas aide has told diplomats.
Faced with the prospect of a Hamas-run Gaza Strip, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said an international force along the territory’s border with Egypt should be considered.
Israeli political commentators have already dubbed the Gaza Strip “Hamastan”, though they played down the prospects of an Israeli military invasion to confront Hamas.
“We have to find other options to this, however tempting,” Amos Gilad, a senior security official, said on Israel Radio, adding that Israel should give preference to persuading other countries to preventing aid to a Hamas-run Gaza.
Hamas, which along with other groups smuggles weapons into Gaza in tunnels built under the frontier, rejected the idea.
The European Commission suspended humanitarian aid to Gaza. “The humanitarian situation is catastrophic, we have had to withdraw our operators,” European Aid and Development Commissioner Louis Michel told Reuters in Brussels.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief said on Wednesday the EU would consider participation in an international force.
At the United Nations, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also raised the possibility of “an international presence” during a lunch with U.N. Security Council members.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi and Wafa Amr in Ramallah and Ori Lewis, Jeffrey Heller and Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem