Hamas expands its control in Gaza

The Baltimore Sun

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Hamas forces blew up or captured three more security compounds yesterday from outgunned Fatah defenders who surrendered by the dozens as the militant Islamic movement expanded its control of the Gaza Strip.

Hamas battered Fatah's four main compounds with mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons fire. Both Palestinian factions fired wildly from high-rise rooftops, and Hamas turned a mosque into a grenade-launching base.

By late yesterday, Hamas controlled nearly all of the densely populated coastal territory outside this sprawling capital city.

At least 22 people were killed or found dead during the day, bringing to more than 60 the three-day death toll in a conflict that increasingly resembles a civil war.

Hospitals reported 80 wounded yesterday. The dead included two U.N. relief workers and a boy of 16 killed when about 400 civilians marching in Gaza City to protest the violence came under fire from unknown gunmen.

The rival factions nominally share power in the Palestinian Authority, which administers Gaza and the West Bank. But the secular Fatah favors peace with Israel; Hamas advocates destruction of the Jewish state. Their immediate battle is over control of Palestinian security services that employ tens of thousands of gunmen.

After more than a year of sporadic clashes and stalemates, Hamas moved decisively this week to try to seize a monopoly on armed force in Gaza.

Better organized and more highly motivated, it has thrown entire battalions against its rival, raising the conflict to a new level of brutality that has included kidnappings and summary executions on both sides.

"What is going on in Gaza is madness," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the top Fatah official, said yesterday.

The fighting terrorized the coastal territory's 1.5 million inhabitants, keeping many pinned down in their homes. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which hands out food to 30 percent of Gaza's population, cut back on its distributions after two of its Palestinian workers died in crossfire.

Fatah's U.S.-backed security forces, running short of ammunition with no reinforcements in sight, appeared to be slowly disintegrating. About 170 Fatah fighters surrendered during one battle yesterday; 40 more fled to safety in Egypt by breaking through a border fence, police there said.

In Gaza City in the evening, Hamas militants with loudspeakers called on families with relatives in the Fatah security forces to encourage them to surrender by today or risk death. The announcements said Fatah's military leaders had left Gaza.

In fact, Fatah's top security official, Mohammed Dahlan, has been absent for weeks. Some officials said he is in Egypt for knee surgery. Fatah's forces in Gaza have remained on the defensive, trying to protect their bases.

Abbas, showing characteristic restraint, has not sought Israel's permission to move Fatah reinforcements across Israeli territory from the West Bank to Gaza, Israeli officials said.

Meanwhile, the officials said, Hamas for months has been stockpiling heavy weapons in Gaza, apparently purchased with aid from Iran and smuggled across the border from Egypt.

"Gaza is rapidly approaching the point of no return, when Hamas takes over," said Oded Granot, the Arab affairs commentator for Israel's Channel 1 television. "Fatah is suffering from a lack of motivation and leadership."

Violence spread yesterday to the Fatah-dominated West Bank, where Fatah gunmen raided a pro-Hamas TV production company in Nablus and abducted 12 employees after a shootout with Hamas gunmen that left one passerby wounded.

The more populous West Bank has remained relatively free of the cycles of violence that have engulfed Gaza. But Fatah appeared to be bent on retaliating there for its setbacks in the coastal territory. The gunmen threatened to kill their 12 hostages unless Hamas stands down in Gaza.

Late in the day, Hamas proposed a truce in Gaza but set conditions that Fatah was certain to reject, including surrender of Fatah's control over its scattered police and military forces.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said the movement had passed its proposal to Egyptian mediators.

Rushdi abu Alouf and Richard Boudreaux write for the Los Angeles Times.

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