Hamas pounded Gaza City’s three main security compounds and President Mahmoud Abbas’ headquarters with mortars, grenades and assault rifles today, calling on beleaguered Fatah forces to surrender, in an apparent attempt to take control of the entire Gaza Strip.
In one dramatic victory, hundreds of members of a Fatah-allied clan that had fought fiercely surrendered to masked Hamas gunmen and were led, arms raised in the air, to a nearby mosque.
Fatah fighters desperately tried to cling to their positions, but appeared outgunned by Hamas. One of the battles raged around the beachside headquarters of the Fatah-allied Preventive Security, with both sides wiring wildly from high-rise rooftops.
Dr Wael Abdel Jawad, a physician trapped in his apartment in the line of fire, said he heard Fatah fighters shouting at colleagues on an adjacent roof to send them more ammunition. “All of us are terrified here. Shooting came through the windows of our apartment, children are screaming. We are hearing from a nearby mosque the call by Hamas to surrender,” he said.
Fatah’s leader, Abbas, who is in the West Bank, called the fighting “madness,” but his appeals for a cease-fire rang increasingly hollow as Hamas gunmen took over or destroyed one base or another of his security forces. Later, his office and residential compound in Gaza came under attack, with Hamas fighters firing at Fatah fighters guarding an access road.
Hamas has ignored calls for a cease-fire, and its hard-liners said the offensive would continue.
Throughout the day Hamas moved systematically, taking control of key Fatah positions. Fatah commanders complained they were not given clear orders by Abbas to fight back and that they had no central command. Fatah’s strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, has spent the last few weeks in Cairo for treatment of a knee injury.
At least 15 people were killed in fighting today, bringing the total in the four-day campaign to more than 50.
Among those killed today was a man who joined a non-violent protest against the fighting in Gaza City. Also shot dead were two women from the Fatah-allied Bakr clan whose members had surrendered to Hamas today.
After the surrender, the women tried to leave the area and, according to a clan member, try to take a sick girl to a hospital, and were shot on the street by jittery Hamas gunmen.
This evening, Hamas attacked the three main compounds of Fatah-allied forces in Gaza City – the headquarters of the Preventive Security, the Intelligence Service and the National Forces – in what could usher in the final phase of the battle.
Hamas fighters, firing rockets and mortar shells, took over the rooftops in nearby houses and cut off the roads to prevent reinforcements from arriving.
Hamas gunmen in high-rise buildings also fired at Abbas’ Gaza office and house and his guard force returned fire. Abbas was in the West Bank at the time of the fighting.
Earlier today, Hamas militants surrounded a security headquarters in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis and called on everyone inside to leave or they would blow the building up, witnesses said. The building was then destroyed by a bomb planted in a tunnel underneath it, said Ali Qaisi, a presidential guard spokesman.
Security forces later said they lost control of the town.
“Khan Younis is finished, but we are still holding on in Rafah,” said Ziad Sarafandi, a senior security official, referring to a town south of Khan Younis. But soon after, Hamas militants blew up a second security building near Rafah after a long gun battle, said Col. Nasser Khaldi, a senior police official.
“Hamas surrounded the building, they had come from Khan Younis to Rafah, they are working by plan,” he said.
The Popular Resistance Committees, a militant group allied with Hamas, said it had taken control of Gaza’s border with Egypt to prevent arms smuggling and to ensure that Gaze residents did not flee over the border.
Shops in Gaza City were shuttered tight today, and streets were mostly empty as terrified residents huddled in homes that could at any moment turn into battlegrounds. The UN Relief and Works Agency said it couldn’t distribute food to the 30% of the Gaza Strip that relies on international food aid.
The agency’s Gaza director, John Ging, said the agency would curtail its operations after two of its Palestinian workers were killed by crossfire, but insisted: “We are scaling back, we are not pulling back.”
Hamas and Fatah have waged a sporadic power struggle since Hamas won parliament elections last year, ending four decades of Fatah rule. But the battles have worsened in recent days as Hamas waged a systematic assault on security forces to take over Gaza.
Fighting between the two factions, which nominally share power in the Palestinian government, spilled into the Fatah-dominated West Bank.Hamas and Fatah gunmen exchanged fire in the city of Nablus and a nearby refugee camp, after Fatah gunmen tried to storm a pro-Hamas TV production company. Hamas said 12 people of its fighters were wounded.
Abbas today urged an end to the bloody confrontations. He spoke by phone with the Damascus-based Mashaal to try to stop the crisis, said Abbas aide Nimr Hamad.
“This is madness, the madness that is going on in Gaza now,” Abbas told reporters.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, said the clashes could have been avoided if Abbas had given the Hamas-led Cabinet control over the security forces, which he blamed for a wave of kidnappings, torture and violence in Gaza.
“The president bears complete responsibility for the current crisis,” he said.
The mounting bloodshed touched off protests in two main Gaza towns.
Several hundred tribal leaders, women, children and Islamic Jihad militants turned out in Gaza City for a protest initiated by Egyptian mediators. Some demonstrators scattered after masked Hamas gunmen fired in the air, but others pushed on, carrying Palestinian flags and shouting: “Do not shoot” and “national unity” over a loudspeaker.
Witnesses said Hamas gunmen shot at the protesters as they approached the home of Fatah loyalists, trapping them.
Protester Bilal Qurashali said he saw a man shot in the head. “We are unable to get out. The place is closed,” he said.
Health officials said one protester was killed and 14 others were injured by bullets and brought to the hospital in civilian cars because ambulances couldn’t navigate the heavy fire.
Separately, Hamas gunmen opened fire from a high-rise building at about 1,000 protesters in Khan Younis, injuring one and breaking up the protest.