Hamas forces encroached on Fatah strongholds in Gaza Wednesday, gaining an advantage in what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called "the first signs of a cruel civil war." Two regional experts, Ghaith al-Omari and Mark Perry, lend their perspectives on the conflict.
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The sounds of small-arms fire often clashed with the Muslim call to prayer, as violence intensified across the Gaza Strip today. Groups of gunmen loyal to two rival factions engaged in open battles across the 130-square-mile stretch of coastal land that is home to more than a million Palestinians.
Even a peace rally was not immune to warfare today. A gathering of 1,000 Palestinians scattered when gunmen opened fire during the march, killing at least two. More than 60 Palestinians have died in the spasm of violence that began over the weekend. At least two U.N. workers also were killed.
The conflict between Fatah and Hamas has paralyzed the already-fragile Palestinian national unity government. Fatah, the nationalist, largely secular party, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, appeared to be losing significant ground in northern Gaza to the Islamist movement Hamas, which won control of the Palestinian Legislative Council in elections in January 2006.
Abbas, whose West Bank compound was the target of Hamas mortar fire on Monday, today made an appeal for calm.
MAHMOUD ABBAS, President, Palestinian Authority (through translator):
This is madness, the madness that is taking place in Gaza now. I don't blame responsibility on any part. Each and everyone that carries weapon and opens fire or attack is responsible. In principle, all parties must stop.
However, there was no sign of a let-up today, as Hamas gunmen routed the better-trained and -equipped Fatah security forces in Gaza; Hamas fighters seized the security force headquarters yesterday, killing 17.
According to human rights groups, the intra-Palestinian conflict has taken on a gruesome, personal tone, including knee-cappings, summary executions, and, in one case, a Fatah member who was handcuffed and thrown from a 15-story building.
The power-sharing agreement between Fatah and Hamas, brokered earlier this year in Mecca under Saudi Arabian auspices, appears to be in tatters. Both sides have accused the other of attempting a power grab through violence, and one Fatah minister said their participation in the government hung in the balance.
AZAM AL-AHMED, Deputy Prime Minister, Palestinian National Authority (through translator):
We haven't decided not to participate in the government, but what we have indicated is that one of the steps we might take if the violence doesn't stop is not to participate in the government.
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, told the Washington Post today, "Our aim to control these military posts does not have any political implications. This is not a coup. After all, we are the ones responsible for the legitimate institutions."
Since Hamas surged to power in parliamentary elections, there has been tenuous, fitful cooperation between the factions, which hold differing visions of a Palestinian state. The U.S., Israel and European Union had cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority and refused to work with the Hamas-led government of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, citing the group's refusal to recognize Israel and its stated goal of destroying the Jewish state.
Today in Washington, a State Department spokesman made clear who the U.S. blames for the violence.
SEAN MCCORMACK, State Department Spokesman:
As I said, it is this so-called military wing of Hamas that launched these attacks, started these rounds of violence. It has swept up innocent civilians in firefights, and gunfights, and shelling, and mortaring, just as Egyptian envoys were working to try to bring together elements of Hamas and Fatah, political elements of Hamas and Fatah, to come to some sort of political accommodation so they can lower the violence there.
The U.S., which has funded and assisted in the training of Palestinian security forces, again today pledged its support for President Abbas.