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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Hamas Gains Ground in Gaza Fighting - New York Times

Hamas Gains Ground in Gaza Fighting - New York Times: "Hamas Gains Ground in Gaza Fighting
By STEVEN ERLANGER

Hamas Gains Ground in Gaza Fighting

JERUSALEM, June 13 — Hamas forces consolidated their control over much of Gaza today, seizing the main north-south road and blowing up a key Fatah headquarters in the southern city of Khan Yunis.

In northern Gaza and Gaza City, Hamas military men, many of them in black masks, moved freely through the streets unchallenged. Hamas controlled Gaza City except for the presidential compound of Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and the Al Suraya headquarters of the National Security Forces, the Palestinian army.

Hamas took over a tall apartment building where many Fatah leaders lived, the Al Awdah building, causing another Fatah leader, Maher Miqdad, to flee with his family, after at least eight Fatah men were killed. Hamas also took over and burned the main police station in Gaza City, another symbol of Fatah power.

In northern Gaza, Hamas gave those at the isolated Fatah military headquarters until Friday evening at 7 P.M. to surrender their weapons.

In Khan Yunis, Hamas detonated a large bomb in a tunnel dug underneath the Preventive Security headquarters, killing at least one of those inside and wounding eight more.

A Hamas spokesman said that Hamas is trying to defend itself from a group within Fatah collaborating with Israel and the United States.

Sami Abu Zuhri of Hamas said in an interview that “there is no political goal behind this but to defend our movement and force these security groups to behave.” When the fighting dies down, he said, “We have no interest in staying. The government will supervise the whole thing according to the law.”

He insisted that “Hamas did not initiate these attacks, but it was pushed to do so to end crimes by the factions inside Fatah who favor a coup.” He said that Hamas “is doing the work that Fatah failed to do, to control these groups,” whom he accused of crimes, chaos and collaboration with Israel and the United States.

“The faction inside Fatah refuses to recognize the results of the elections and is working with the United States and Israel, according to the Dayton plan, and they are given money and weapons to achieve it,” he said, referring to U.S. Security Coordinator Lt. Gen. Keith W. Dayton, who is organizing the training and supplying of Mr. Abbas’s Presidential Guard.

Instead, Mr. Zuhri insisted, the United States should “sit with the movement at the dialogue table on the basis of mutual respect, respecting the elections” of January 2006, which brought Hamas a legislative majority.

Fatah’s Mr. Miqdad sounded depressed on the telephone, and he accused Hamas of following an Israeli script. “This is an Israeli plan,” he said. “They want to connect the West Bank to Jordan and make Gaza a separate jail. This will be the end of an independent Palestinian state.”

He said that Hamas “is committing a coup against legitimacy,” and he said Fatah “should consider pulling out of the government entirely.”

Hundreds of members of the Fatah-allied Bakar clan, who have engaged in fierce battles with Hamas in recent months near the Beach Camp in Gaza City, surrendered to Hamas, witnesses said.

Many demoralized police and security officials loyal to Fatah simply surrendered their positions, witnesses said. One Hamas military man exulted that the police station in the old Israeli settlement of Netzarim surrendered without a fight at 4 a.m.

Abdullah al-Aqad, 28, of Khan Yunis, said he joined the national security forces to have a job. “Hamas is very strong there, stronger than Fatah so far,” he said. “I am not willing to go and raise my gun to kill a Palestinian.”

He marveled at the speed of the Hamas advance. “We are 70,000 PA soldiers, and where are they all?” he asked. “And facing 10,000 Hamas soldiers.”

His cousin, Abdel-Rahman al-Aqad, 29, said: “No religion, no law can justify what is happening. Where is Abu Mazen and Haniya?” he asked, referring to Mr. Abbas and the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya. “All they’re good at is speeches. I have no hope anymore. These are not Palestinians. A Palestinian does not kill his brother.”

Some 40 men of Fatah’s Preventative Security forces fled the southern city of Rafah into Egypt, where they are in custody.

Mr. Abbas, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, spoke to exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal to try to ease the crisis. “This is madness, the madness that is going on in Gaza now,” Mr. Abbas told reporters.

At least 13 Palestinians were killed today and another 64 injured, according to Moaweya Hassanein of the Palestinian Health Ministry. He said that 59 have died since Monday.

The dead included two workers with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which helps the 70 percent of Gazans who are refugees or their descendants. The organization announced that it was curtailing its operations until the fighting stopped.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned of “regional consequences” if Gaza fell under the complete control of Hamas. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that Hamas control of Gaza would limit Israel’s ability to negotiate with Mr. Abbas, as Washington wants.

Some Israeli security officials say privately that Israel wants to see the West Bank isolated from Gaza, even more so with Hamas in control there. One official suggested that Hamas’s show of strength in Gaza will make it more likely that the Israeli military intervenes there to curb Hamas’s military power, which they say is similar to that of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, said that Israel did not see “the implosion of the Palestinian Authority in anyone’s interest.” But in Gaza, he said, “the clear strength that Hamas is demonstrating on the ground is a problem for us, and a challenge. It’s a problem for the Palestinians, too,” he said. “Our whole policy is to work with moderate pragmatic Palestinians who believe in peace, and Hamas hegemony in Gaza is not good for Israel, for the Palestinians or for peace.”

Asked whether the Hamas gains showed the failure of the American and Israeli effort to isolate and damage Hamas and boost Fatah with recognition and weaponry, Mr. Regev said: “I don’t think Israel or the international community should give up on Palestinian moderates. That would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though things don’t look good in Gaza, we should have patience. Controlling the guns in Gaza doesn’t mean controlling the minds.”

While Fatah blamed Hamas for the crisis, Israeli analyst of Palestinian affairs Danny Rubinstein of Haaretz said that the “primary reason for the breakup is the fact that Fatah has refused to fully share the PA’s mechanism of power with its rival Hamas, despite Hamas’s decisive victory in the January 2006 general elections.” Fatah “was forced to overrule Palestinian voters because the entire world demanded it do so,” Mr. Rubinstein added. “Matters have come to the point where Hamas attempted to take by force what they believe they rightfully deserve.”

While rocket fire from Gaza into Israel has been sharply reduced and Israel has held off aerial attacks for the last few days, Israel lifted a gag order today about the arrest May 20 of two Palestinian women who sought to enter Israel to be suicide bombers on behalf of Islamic Jihad in Tel Aviv and Netanya.

The two women, one of them pregnant, had received Israeli permission to travel to Ramallah for medical tests. The Israelis say that the two women were to meet Islamic Jihad in Ramallah to get explosive belts.

Fatima Yunes Hassan Zak, 39, a resident of Gaza, mother of eight children and pregnant with her ninth, had been responsible for an Islamic Jihad Gaza women’s labor office for four years. Her niece, Ruda Ibrahim Yunes Habib, 30, a mother of four children, sought her assistance in carrying out a suicide attack inside Israel.

Both women were arrested as they tried to leave Gaza and they remain in Israeli custody.

Taghreed El-Khodary contributed reporting from Gaza City and Khan Yunis.

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