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Friday, 15 June 2007

Hamas' takeover of Gaza ratchets up tension

TWO STATES: End of an era for Fatah as ruling force

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Friday, June 15, 2007

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Jerusalem -- The green flag of Hamas, emblazoned with verses from the
Quran, fluttered over the Palestinian Authority security headquarters
in Gaza Thursday, signaling the end of an era and plunging the region
into an even more uncertain and volatile future.

The conquest of Gaza, in less than a week of fighting that killed at
least 90 people in the past five days, marks the beginning of an
Islamic ministate, home to 1.4 million people along a coastal strip of
the Mediterranean. It also ratchets up tension with Israel, a
sovereign country Hamas has vowed to eliminate and continues to
bombard with rockets.

"This is a real coup against the Palestinian Authority," said Nabil
Amr, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who
declared a state of emergency and dissolved the Hamas-led unity
government. Abbas also ordered his forces to round up Hamas operatives
in the West Bank, where Fatah remains largely in control of 2 million
Palestinians. In Ramallah, angry supporters torched the office of
three Hamas lawmakers.

Abbas' decrees appeared to have little impact on Hamas, or on facts on
the ground, except perhaps for the emergence of two rival Palestinian
governments -- one in Gaza, the other in the West Bank.

"Hamas rejects the Abbas decisions. In practical terms these decisions
are worthless," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters. (Hamas)
"Prime Minister (Ismail) Haniyeh remains the head of the government
even if it was dissolved by the president."

"How can you declare a state of emergency if you don't have a
government to enforce it?" added Hamas legislator Salah Bardaweel.

Hamas also dominates the Palestinian Legislative Council, which would
need to approve any new government, noted Bardaweel, who said Gaza
would now become a safer area. "Now we can start implementing our
security plan for imposing law and order," he said.

On Thursday, Hamas fighters captured Gaza City's three main security
compounds and marched half-naked Fatah fighters with arms raised from
the main security building. Eyewitnesses reported that some Fatah
officers were dragged out of the Preventive Security headquarters in
the Tal al-Hawa neighborhood and later killed gangland-style by masked
Hamas militiamen.

But Hamas' military moves, clearly planned long in advance, and the
total collapse of U.S.-trained and -equipped Fatah security forces,
left many observers, both here and abroad, in shock. Fatah, which has
suffered from corruption and a lack of leadership, is estimated to
have twice as many gunmen as Hamas.

In past years, the United States, the European Union and other
European states have poured millions of dollars into Abbas'
presidential guard and lavished Fatah with training, weapons and other
equipment, believing the secular group would stem the rise of Hamas,
by force if necessary. That illusion was shattered Thursday as dozens
of U.S.-trained fighters were marched out of Fatah-dominated security
installations in their underwear.

"The Palestinian Authority has failed because for 15 years it failed
to achieve any of its goals, above all Palestinian statehood," said
Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University.
"Israel has also contributed to its downfall by building the
(security) wall, turning the West Bank into cantons and weakening the
Palestinian security forces. This explosion was going to happen
because there is no political vision for people to look forward to."

Bernard Sabella of the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees
of the Middle East Council of Churches said the situation was
deteriorating into "madness."

"This developing situation will further impoverish and disempower our
people," Sabella wrote in an e-mail message to his supporters. "The
infighting in Gaza definitely gives a break to Israel as it diverts
attention from the root cause of overall instability in the Holy Land,
which is Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and control over our
people."

For now, Israeli leaders are working on a response to the Hamas
victory. Most observers say Israel does not want to be dragged back
into Gaza, which it abandoned two years ago after nearly four decades
of occupation. But the Jewish state still controls the supply of food,
medicine, water and electricity into Gaza, as well as its access. The
government must now decide how to isolate a Hamas-governed Gaza Strip
without triggering a major humanitarian crisis.

Guy Bechor, head of Middle Eastern studies at the Interdisciplinary
Center in Herzliya, said the latest developments marked a de facto
completion of Israel's disengagement from Gaza.

"This has ended the illusions of arrangements and understandings with
respect to Gaza," said Bechor. "Electricity, water -- all the things
which should have been cut off with the disengagement. In effect, the
real disengagement has finally occurred this evening."

Meanwhile, Calev Ben Dor, an analyst at the Reut Institute think tank
in Tel Aviv, said separating the Hamas-led Gaza from the
Fatah-governed West Bank might be advantageous for Israel.

"It may offer the best opportunity in years to break the current
political stalemate by facilitating the creation of an effective
address in the West Bank with which Israel can promote a political
process," he wrote in the Jerusalem Post.

This article appeared on page A - 17 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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