GAZA (Reuters) - Hamas Islamists seemed in command of much of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday after battering forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Diplomats said a top aide to Abbas told them some of the president’s men ran for their lives, others ran out of bullets and that after five days of battle “Gaza is lost”.
Abbas, who called the fighting “madness”, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas agreed in a telephone call on the need to staunch the bloodshed, according to officials on both sides.
But with the machineguns and mortars of civil war echoing in Gaza City after dark, hospital officials tallied another 33 deaths over the day, including a teenager at a peace rally and schoolboy shot leaving an exam. Two Palestinian U.N. refugee workers were killed too.
Most of the dead though were fighters.
Each side accused the other of more atrocities in vicious fighting that has killed 81 people since Saturday. With Fatah forces routed or surrounded in places, Palestinians’ two small territories, Gaza and the West Bank, were ever more estranged.
In the relatively tranquil and more populous West Bank, Fatah militants threatened to attack Hamas figures and small groups wrecked fittings in Hamas-run public buildings.
Abbas and Haniyeh agreed on “the need to end the fighting and return to the language of dialogue”, Abbas’s Palestine Television said in a late-night news flash.
But a Hamas official, Sami Abu Zuhri, told Reuters their fighters would not back down. “The Hamas campaign that began yesterday morning will continue until calm is restored.”
A Fatah official who attended a late-night meeting with Abbas said: “Our men have started counter-attacks against Hamas positions. They regained some.”
Haniyeh was in Gaza, the coastal enclave whose poor voters propelled Hamas to power 18 months ago. Abbas was in Ramallah, in the West Bank hills behind Jerusalem from where his late predecessor Yasser Arafat dominated and united Palestinians.
Israel, which once seemed close to a peace deal with Arafat that would have given Palestinians a state, served notice that their chances of achieving that now could dim further if Hamas defeats Fatah, its partner in a now moribund unity government.
Fatah has threatened to quit the three-month-old coalition, forged under Arab mediation at Mecca. Abbas could rule by decree but this might also entrench the Palestinian split.
“If they want to control Gaza militarily, then they’re pushing for ... civil war,” Abbas aide Azzam al-Ahmad said.
Israel has kept a tight cordon round Gaza since pulling out troops in 2005. It still occupies the West Bank.
An independent assessment of the balance of forces and territory in the 40-km (25-mile) Gaza Strip, sandwiched between Israel, Egypt and the sea, was difficult. But diplomats told Reuters some Abbas supporters appeared to have given up.
“Gaza’s lost,” was the briefing message from one senior presidential aide, a senior Western diplomat said. Hundreds of Fatah troops, some trained and armed with help from Washington, had run out of ammunition and abandoned their posts, he said.
Nor have fresh arms and ammunition requested by Fatah from Egypt and other Arab states arrived, he and a security source said. A source in the Israeli government, which would have to let any weapons into Gaza, confirmed none had been delivered.
The senior diplomat said hundreds of Abbas’s National Security Forces (NSF) ran out of bullets during a battle. Others “just split” and “some just gave up their trucks and left”.
“They outnumber the enemy by as much as 4 to 1. They should have enough to win,” said one diplomat. But many say Hamas, with backers in Iran and Syria, is better motivated and organized than some Fatah units where men join mainly for a pay check.
Hamas’s armed wing tightened its hold on northern Gaza by seizing a major Fatah security base and control of main roads. It said “the coup-seekers” — a reference to Fatah — in that area had until Friday evening to hand over their weapons.
Fighting spread south towards the Egyptian border, where Egyptian officials said about 40 Fatah-linked security men had given themselves up into Egyptian custody.
In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow said the Palestinians “are going to have to sort out their politics”.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Jeffrey Heller, Adam Entous, Dan Williams and Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem