26 Dead as Hamas Tightens Its Grip on Gaza

Hamas effectively completed its victory over Fatah in the Gaza Strip yesterday following a day of fighting in which 26 persons lost their lives. Most of the dead were affiliated with Fatah, although at least two civilians participating in a peace demonstration and two United Nations aid workers were also killed. Since the fighting began on Sunday, at least 67 Palestinians were killed in the internecine battles.

In Israel, the situation emerging in the Gaza Strip is lending greater urgency to the decision of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to promote an initiative for the deployment of a multinational force along the Philadelphi Route and for the construction of a barrier to combat smuggling of arms and weapons into the Gaza Strip. A strategy for the containment of the current situation will be on the agenda of talks between Olmert and U.S. President George Bush in Washington next Tuesday.

During yesterday's fighting in the Gaza Strip, Hamas focused its military activity against the main Fatah headquarters in Gaza City, having completed the takeover of nearly all other parts of the Strip.

Many Fatah fighters surrendered and handed their weapons to Hamas gunmen, sources from Gaza reported yesterday.

Pockets of Fatah resistance have remained in Rafah, close to the Egyptian border, and in a number of compounds to the west of Gaza City.

Earlier, a Hamas spokesman offered a conditional ceasefire under which the interior minister, a post now held by Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, would command all of the Palestinian security services.

During the evening hours, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh issued a joint statement calling for an end to the fighting.

Jordan's Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit yesterday blamed regional elements for encouraging the fighting in the Gaza Strip. He did not specify.

Meanwhile, senior Fatah officials urged Abbas to call for a dissolution of the current unity government and the appointment of an emergency cabinet excluding Hamas. Some Fatah officials went as far as to suggest that Hamas officials in the West Bank should be harassed as a threat to Hamas in the Strip.

In the early hours yesterday, Hamas took over the refugee camps in the central Gaza Strip, and later, with nearly no fighting, took control of the main facility of the National Security organization in the area.

Hamas fighters fired mortars and anti-tank missiles against the buildings of the National Security base, and other positions in the Khan Yunis area. One National Security officer was killed.

Before noon, two civilians were killed during a protest held in Gaza City under the banner "Stop the Killing." Some 1,000 Palestinians marched in the city, calling for an end to the fighting, but when they approached a Hamas position, militants fired at the protesters, killing two.

Two employees of UNRWA, which provides Palestinian refugees with assistance, were also killed yesterday. The organization announced that it was suspending its operations in the Strip.

Several hours later, Hamas fighters detonated a tunnel bomb - they dug under the headquarters of the Preventing Security and General Intelligence organizations in Khan Yunis - to destroy the buildings. At least 14 were killed in that attack.

Two women from the Bakar clan were killed in the evening, when a missile struck their home.

As the situation became increasingly desperate in the afternoon, officers of the National Security forces, blasted a hole in the wall along the border with Egypt on the Philadelphi Route, and dozens of civilians rushed to cross into Sinai and to safety.

Chairman Abbas adopted a statesmanlike approach to the fighting, calling it "madness" but did not take sides. He said that "whoever is involving in the fighting" is responsible for the situation in the Strip, and called on both Fatah and Hamas to respond favorably to an Egyptian proposal to mediate between them.

Israel is watching the developments in the Gaza Strip with grave concern, and the defense establishment will hold meetings next week to prepare recommendations for a new policy. The general assessment in the Israel Defense Forces is that there is a new reality in the Strip, and that Hamas has defeated Fatah in the battle for power.

Since Hamas is boycotted by Israel, it is still unclear how essential contacts will be handled, particularly coordination over the control of transit points and the entry into Israel of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip for humanitarian purposes.

At this stage all crossings into the Gaza Strip are closed to traffic because of the fighting. IDF forces along the border fence have been instructed to show restraint and avoid being dragged into the Palestinian infighting.

Israeli political sources said yesterday that the Hamas takeover requires that Israel reexamine its ties with the Gaza Strip, and whether it will continue its economic ties, the infrastructure links - providing of fuel and electricity from Israel.