Hamas Conquers Gaza Strip

Following Hamas' violent seizure of power in the Gaza Strip this week - which has cost 80 lives - Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the Hamas-Fatah coalition government yesterday and declared a state of emergency. He also said he would replace Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

The Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Fawzi Barhoum, told Haaretz that Hamas was interested in remaining in contact with Israel to attend to the needs of the civilian population.

Israel has been careful not to become involved in the fighting, but the U.S. is seeking to contain Hamas in the Strip. To achieve that, Israel may be urged to make concessions in the West Bank.

U.S. officials said the Bush administration will now work to prevent the Gaza violence from spilling over to the West Bank. The U.S. therefore aims to accelerate the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to allow Abbas to present some achievements.

The American administration is also interested in improving living conditions in the West Bank to demonstrate to the Palestinians that they are better off under Fatah than Hamas.

Washington will urge Israel to reconsider loosening its military grip on the West Bank. Israel will also be requested to unfreeze the Palestinian tax funds it has been withholding from the PA. The money and further funding will help boost Abbas' new emergency government.

Abbas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and U.S. President George W. Bush are reportedly in favor of deploying multinational forces in the Strip to maintain order, as Hamas has consolidated near-absolute control of the area.

Political sources in Jerusalem were skeptical yesterday of the prospect of deploying multinational forces in the Strip any time soon. Egypt has made it clear it does not intend to send troops. "No one will come there", a senior political official said.

The announcement to dissolve the Palestinian national unity government, which was made in a news conference by top Abbas aide Tayeb Abdel Rahim, did not surprise the White House, which was informed beforehand.

Bush administration officials told Haaretz they regarded the decision to dissolve the Fatah-Hamas alliance as further proof of the need to support Abbas against Hamas.

Olmert is visiting Washington Tuesday to meet with Bush. The prime minister reportedly intends to tell Bush that Hamas' coup must be contained in the Gaza Strip and not allowed to spread to the West Bank.

According to the source, the defense establishment shares Olmert's views that containing the situation in Gaza is a priority. "The defense establishment agrees with the containment policy, as we are determined not to see last week's events repeated in the West Bank," the source said.

Other diplomatic sources said the Bush administration has already formed a list of objectives in Gaza following the Hamas takeover. The Americans, too, believe Gaza must be isolated, while the international community addresses the problems there.

The U.S. seeks to block the arms-flow to Hamas in Gaza, while ensuring that no humanitarian disaster such as a famine occurs. The Americans hope to signal to the population that Hamas' takeover is "a rotten deal." They added that Abbas was expected to carry out raids and arrests across the West Bank aimed at weakening Hamas there.

The Gaza events have also affected Israel's negotiations with Palestinian officials over a possible prisoner exchange to free Gilad Shalit, the Israel Defense Forces soldier Hamas abducted last year. The source said the talks, being conducted via Egyptian mediators, have suffered as a result of the recent fighting.

Meanwhile, IDF forces stationed near Gaza are keeping a strict non-interference policy. The troops received orders to exercise restraint to prevent Israel from getting dragged into the violence more than it needs to.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz held a special meeting with senior IDF officers and the top echelon of the Shin Bet following the events in Gaza. "The fact the Palestinians are fighting amongst themselves cannot be allowed to compromise our readiness and deployment," he told the officers.

Palestinian militants fired two Qassam rockets into Israel yesterday, but no one was injured. The IDF was instructed not to retaliate. In the West Bank, however, IDF troops killed two Palestinian militants who opened fire on soldiers during arrest raids in West Bank cities and towns.

In the announcement on the decision to dissolve the unity government, Abbas aide Abdel Rahim told reporters that the PA chairman also intends to call for a multinational force in Gaza, and plans to appoint an independent politician as the new Palestinian prime minister, to replace Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

Following the announcement of Abbas' decision, Hamas issued a statement suggesting it did not recognize Abbas's authority. "Prime Minister Haniyeh remains the head of the government even if it was dissolved by the president," senior Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Barak Ravid contributed to this article.