GAZA CITY -- In a sharp challenge to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday, the Hamas-led government deployed a new police force made up mainly of members of Palestinian militant groups.
Carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles, the gunmen fanned out across the Gaza Strip, moving in twos and threes along city streets and in the alleys of refugee camps. On a grassy traffic median, small groups of them shouldered their weapons and spread prayer rugs when the afternoon call to prayer wafted across the car-choked streets.
Abbas vetoed the creation of the 3,000-member force last month when it was announced by Interior Minister Said Siyam, a Hamas loyalist.
Hamas ignored the veto and remained quiet about the role of a well-known Palestinian militant, Jamal abu Samhadana, who was named commander of the new force.
The deployment, which was moved up by 10 days, began amid growing strife in Gaza between rival gunmen from Hamas and Abbas' Fatah faction.
Within less than 24 hours Tuesday and yesterday, two members of Hamas' military wing were killed in separate ambush-style shootings, and two other Hamas members were wounded in a third attack.
At a news conference, Siyam pointed to a wave of abductions and shootings as a sign of the lawlessness that he said the new force was set up to combat.
"We cannot ignore the fact that the security apparatus is weak. There are too many crimes and killings," he said.
Allies of the moderate Abbas, who was traveling outside the Palestinian territories, swiftly denounced the Hamas move.
"The illegality of this force has already been declared, and it should be dismantled immediately," said Nabil abu Rdeineh, a senior aide to the president.
Control of the Palestinian security forces, thought to number about 80,000 members, has been a key element in the power struggle between Abbas and Hamas, which swept to victory in parliamentary elections in January.
The Islamist group has abandoned its campaign of suicide bombings in Israel but has refused to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist or to renounce violence. As a result, direct international aid to the Palestinian Authority has largely dried up.
Under Palestinian law, the executive branch, once headed by Yasser Arafat, has direct control over about half of the security forces. After Hamas' election, Abbas consolidated the remainder under the command of a political ally, Rashid abu Shback.
At his news conference, Siyam said his rights as interior minister had been usurped.
"When I give clear and strong orders, many times they are not implemented," he said.
The new force will report directly to him, he said. No mention was made of abu Samhadana, whose appointment as the force's commander drew heated protests from Israel and the United States. Abu Samhadana was implicated in a 2003 attack on a U.S. convoy in Gaza that killed two members of a U.S. security force.
Siyam said the new unit is made up of members of groups from across the political spectrum, not just from Islamist parties such as Hamas. But the armed men seen on the streets, wearing black T-shirts and camouflage trousers, had the beards favored by observant Muslims. Some wore green Hamas headbands.
Until yesterday, the security forces had been dominated by the largely secular Fatah.
The bitterness between the two factions was on display at the funeral of Hamas field commander Mahmoud Tata, who was killed late Tuesday night in a drive-by shooting yards from Abbas' Gaza residence.
Angry mourners flocked to Gaza's main hospital to collect his corpse from the morgue for burial. Small boys wailed and pounded on the building's metal shutters as the body, wrapped in a white shroud and a green Hamas flag, was brought out and loaded onto an open truck.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.