Hamas seizes Gaza - Takeover disrupts peace hopes throughout region
By Joel Greenberg
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published June 15, 2007
JERUSALEM -- Hamas forces completed their takeover of the Gaza Strip early Friday with the capture of President Mahmoud Abbas' seaside compound, raising urgent questions throughout the region and in Washington about how to respond to the emergence of a militant Islamic enclave on Israel's southern border.
The Hamas victory over forces of the rival Fatah movement dealt a heavy blow to U.S.-sponsored peace efforts, as the Palestinians are divided geographically and politically. Hamas now controls Gaza while Fatah remains dominant in the West Bank.
While some analysts portrayed the developments as a failure for the U.S. effort to support Abbas, a moderate who supports peace negotiations with Israel, others debated how Israel would deal with Hamas, a militant Islamic movement that refuses to recognize Israel and rejects a permanent peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
That elusive goal has been the focus of a renewed push by the Bush administration, reflecting the widespread belief that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis has inflamed militants throughout the Middle East and must be addressed comprehensively before stability can be achieved in Iraq and other troubled parts of the region. The U.S. has funneled millions of dollars to bolster Abbas' government in hopes of encouraging renewed peace talks.
But both Israel and the U.S. consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and the matter of who represents the Palestinian leadership now appears in doubt. As Hamas fighters overwhelmed his forces' main command centers in Gaza City on Thursday, Abbas dissolved the Palestinian unity government, dismissing Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and announcing the formation of a temporary emergency government.
Hamas leaders rejected Abbas' move and said they constituted the legitimate elected government.
Abbas, the leader of Fatah, also declared a state of emergency, accusing Hamas of a "military coup."
But none of the measures, announced at Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, was likely to be enforced in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas took control after less than a week of fighting that has killed about 90 people and wounded scores more.
In a final push Thursday, Hamas forces captured the Preventive Security headquarters and General Intelligence building in Gaza City after battles in which the attackers pounded their targets with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and explosive charges.
Later Hamas fighters also took Al-Saraya, the headquarters of the paramilitary National Security Forces, with little resistance, capturing vehicles, arms and ammunition.
A symbolic capture
The fall of Preventive Security headquarters had special significance for both sides. More than a decade ago, the Fatah-allied force had been at the forefront of factional fighting with Hamas and led a crackdown on the group.
In a scene shown on Hamas television, Preventive Security officers were led out of their headquarters, stripped to the waist, their arms in the air. Several flinched at the crack of a gunshot.
A witness and Fatah officials said several officers were executed, shot in the head after they surrendered, The Associated Press reported. Hamas denied such killings and said the men died in combat.
Black-clad Hamas fighters in ski masks and green bandannas overran the captured security buildings, firing bursts of celebratory gunfire and raising the green Hamas flag. Some knelt in prayer and shouted "God is great!"
Security offices were looted, along with the empty homes of Abbas and the Fatah strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan. He and other local Fatah leaders were outside of Gaza during the recent days of fighting.
"We are telling our people that the past era has ended and will not return," Islam Shahwan, a spokesman for the Hamas militia, told the group's radio station. "The era of justice and Islamic rule has arrived."
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called his group's victory a second liberation after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip two years ago. "This time it was liberated from the herds of the collaborators," he said of Fatah, which has pursued talks with Israel.
With the capture of the main security bases in Gaza City, only Abbas' compound, usually protected by the elite Presidential Guard, remained under Fatah control. But Palestinians reported that some commanders of the guard fled by sea to Egypt and Israel, and other officers escaped in civilian clothes. By the time Hamas forces arrived about midnight, there was little resistance and the area was easily overrun.
Earlier, dozens of Fatah officers stationed on the Egyptian border at the southern town of Rafah fled to Egypt as the city fell to Hamas forces. The Popular Resistance Committees, militants allied with Hamas, were said to be in control of the border crossing at a spot where military weapons frequently are smuggled into Gaza.
The clashes spilled into the West Bank, where Fatah gunmen rounded up more than 30 Hamas supporters and ransacked and burned a Hamas office in Nablus, tossing furniture out of windows. Early Friday, Hamas said one of its members had been killed in the city.
In his decree dismissing the government, Abbas called Hamas an "outlaw militia" that he said had waged a "criminal war" and an "armed rebellion."
Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman, called the presidential decree illegal. "In practical terms these decisions are worthless," he said. "Prime Minister Haniyeh remains the head of the government even if it was dissolved by the president."
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. backed Abbas' move to disband the government. "President Abbas has exercised his lawful authority as president of the Palestinian Authority, as leader of the Palestinian people," she said.
Earlier, White House spokesman Tony Snow said the situation in Gaza "is a source of profound concern" and he accused Hamas of "committing acts of terror, now against the Palestinian people."
Broad policy implications
The new reality in Gaza could lead to a rethinking of policy in Israel and Washington regarding talks with the Palestinians.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Wednesday that a Hamas takeover in Gaza "will be significant ... for the ability to reach agreements with [Abbas] and whether it would be possible to implement them in Gaza."
Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official, said Israel would have to work with Egypt and other nations to prevent the smuggling of weapons to Gaza and the granting of foreign aid or diplomatic recognition to the Hamas-controlled entity in the coastal strip.
Hamas has received support from Iran and Syria, two countries that are particularly antagonistic to Israel.
"They have to be defined as a hostile, dangerous entity, and that is how they should be treated," Gilad told Israel Radio. "Politically we should not delude ourselves that it is possible to have dialogue with Hamas as long as it doesn't change its declared aims."
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh warned of a "danger that Hamas will turn the Gaza Strip into Hamastan, into a center of thugs, murderers, terrorists, poverty and despair."
Dennis Ross, the former chief U.S. envoy to the Middle East, said Fatah officials' lack of accountability and leadership led to an inevitable rebellion against them, but that Hamas' brutal treatment of Fatah officers had disgusted some Palestinians and "will backfire on them."
In a meeting with Tribune editors and reporters in Chicago, Ross urged the Bush administration, Israel and their allies to focus on strengthening economic and political forces in the Fatah-controlled West Bank while trying to figure out ways to isolate Hamas in Gaza.
Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst and former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the Hamas takeover was a resounding failure for U.S. policy, which allowed armed Islamic groups such as Hamas to participate in elections across the Middle East and then tried to counter them by arming moderates.
The U.S. recently launched a $60 million program to supply Abbas' presidential guard with advanced training and equipment. At Washington's urging, Israel also had allowed shipments to Gaza of arms and ammunition for Abbas' forces.
"What this policy succeeded in doing is provoking a strong Hamas reaction," Alpher said. "Hamas saw the writing on the wall and reacted by taking over."
Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, said the U.S. had failed to empower Abbas politically through genuine progress toward a negotiated two-state solution, leaving him domestically weakened.
"Without an initiative that he can show the Palestinians and convince them, he doesn't have a chance," Jarbawi said. "Sixty million dollars and ammo is a recipe for civil war, not a solution. Now it's going to be more complicated for everybody."
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A day of upheaval in the Gaza Strip
* Hamas fighters capture the Palestinian presidential compound and headquarters of Preventive Security Service, completing a rout of rival Fatah forces and consolidating their armed conquest of the Gaza Strip.
* President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah declares a state of emergency, fires the Hamas prime minister and disbands the unity government. Hamas rejects the orders.
* Masked Hamas gunmen humiliate Fatah security officers, escorting them into the streets with hands in the air and stripped to the waist.
* At least 33 Palestinians are killed Thursday, some in alleged executions. About 90 are dead in five days of fighting.
* Violence spreads to the West Bank, where Fatah militants detain Hamas fi ghters and burn an offi ce used by Hamas lawmakers. One Hamas activist is killed.
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Rival factions battling for control Hamas
Militant Islamic movement founded during the first Palestinian intifada in 1987. Known outside the Palestinian territories for its suicide bombings against Israel but inside for its social services network. Labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S., it has a charter that calls for the destruction of Israel. Won a majority in the Palestinian parliament in early 2006, named the prime minister and Cabinet and deployed armed supporters on the streets.
Nationalist movement founded by Yasser Arafat and others in the Palestinian diaspora in the late 1950s. Became the primary force in the Palestinian nationhood struggle after the 1967 Six-Day War, and staged thousands of guerrilla attacks against Israel. Later endorsed negotiations with Israel and the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Lost its legislative majority to Hamas in early 2006 but kept the Palestinian Authority presidency and control of official security forces.
Timeline of the conflict Tensions between Hamas and Fatah have been simmering in the year and a half since Hamas' victory in parliamentary elections.
Jan. 25, 2006
In a stunning political victory, Hamas wins control of the Palestinian parliament from long-dominant Fatah.
The Palestinian parliament uses its final session before Hamas takes over to grant President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah broad new powers, angering Hamas leaders.
Violent clashes between Hamas and Fatah break out across the West Bank and Gaza Strip after a Hamas leader accuses Abbas of treachery.
Fatah fighters set fire to the Cabinet and parliament buildings in Ramallah, West Bank, in protest against the Hamas-led government.
Abbas says Fatah and Hamas will form a coalition government.
Fighting resumes as talks on forming a coalition government stall.
A five-month Israeli military incursion in Gaza ends with a cease-fire.
Hamas accuses members of Abbas' presidential guard of trying to assassinate Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
Jan. 6, 2007
Abbas outlaws the 6,000-strong Hamas-led Interior Ministry's police force, demanding that it be incorporated into the security apparatus loyal to Fatah. The ministry refuses.
In a move aimed at aiding Abbas, Israel announces it is freeing $100 million in Palestinian tax funds frozen after Hamas' electoral victory.
Fatah and Hamas sign a Saudi-brokered deal for coalition rule.
Fighting resumes, with gun battles in the streets of Gaza City.
Hamas accuses Fatah of providing Israel with information used in air strikes against Hamas members.
The latest cease-fire between the two groups collapses as up to 17 are killed in fighting.
Twenty-eight are killed as Hamas fighters overrun Fatah posts.
Hamas blows up or captures three Fatah security positions.
Abbas dissolves the coalition government and declares a state of emergency.
-- Tribune staff and news services