The Associated Press reports that Fatah gunmen were in retreat throughout Gaza Thursday morning, pulling back to the party's last stronghold in Gaza City and destroying installations to prevent them from falling into Hamas's hands.
Meanwhile, Hamas "declared the 'liberation' of the Gaza Strip" after capturing the last Fatah strongholds in Gaza, Reuters reports late Thursday morning.
"What happened today in the Preventive Security headquarters was the second liberation of the Gaza Strip," Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters, referring to the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers in 2005 as the first time an occupation had ended.
"This time it was liberated from the herds of the collaborators," he said of Fatah, which has pursued peace negotiations with Israel. "Last time, it was liberated from the herds of the settlers."Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for his Presidential Guard, composed of loyalists from his Fatah Party, to jump into the fray against Hamas fighters in the Gaza strip.
Many newspapers and observers described this as a last-ditch effort to maintain a presence in the Gaza Strip and worried that the infighting could deliver a devastating blow to the embryonic Palestinian state and hopes for meaningful peace talks with Israel.
By early afternoon, the green flag of Hamas had been hoisted over Fatah's Preventive Security headquarters in Gaza City, Reuters reported, with one Abbas aide telling diplomats that "Gaza is lost ."
Witnesses told the Associated Press that victorious Hamas gun men dragged some of the survivors of the assault into the street and then murdered them. The Associated Press also reports that Hamas had seized control of Rafah, the strategic town on the border with Egypt.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that hundreds of Fatah officials – once stalwart enemies of Israel – requested the Jewish state's help in organizing a sea evacuation from Gaza, fearing for their lives.
The violent political competition prompted speculation that the Palestinians are now engaged in a civil war in Gaza, reports the Associated Press.
The New York Times quoted Fatah spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa as saying "Hamas is seeking a military coup against the Palestinian Authority ." The Times report said that Fatah has suspended its cooperation with Hamas in a unity government that was brokered with the aid of Saudi Arabia earlier this year, and that the Israeli government is now rethinking the wisdom of a request by the US to approve a shipment of arms and munitions to Fatah , because they think it likely that Hamas will simply seize the weapons intended for Fatah. The US has been giving Fatah military support in its battle with Hamas.
The British newspaper the Guardian newspaper, as many others, suggests that the unity government in the Palestinian territories cannot survive this latest escalation, which would stymie progress toward peace soon, since Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas.
But Calev Ben-Dor, writing in the right-wing Jerusalem Post, said it might create the opportunity for President Abbas to "break the constitutional Gordian knot."
Now, Hamas's disregard for the PA constitution in carrying out a military coup could work in Israel's favor. With a clear Fatah majority in the PLO, Abbas could use the fighting as an opportunity to break the constitutional Gordian knot tying Palestinian hands and annul the Basic Law, thus centralizing power in the West Bank under his leadership.
This new scenario would, in effect, create two separate political-territorial units alongside Israel - a Gaza Hamastan and a West Bank Fatah-land.
Instead of Israel being faced with no Palestinian address, it would suddenly be able to deal with two.
This would create, Mr. Ben-Dor argues, a Fatah-led government in the West Bank that Israel could negotiate with, and a "Hamastan" in Gaza that Israel could isolate.
For the moment, the focus of Israeli officials is on containing the fallout, as arms flows to Hamas may increase. Haaretz reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's call for an international deployment of peacekeepers to Gaza, or at least along the Gaza-Egypt border, has been rejected by both Hamas and the Organization of Islamic Conferences. A Hamas spokesman said his movement would "regard those forces as occupation forces, no different to the Israeli occupation...."
Many observers now think that little can be done to prevent full Hamas control of Gaza, consolidating its election victory. Hamas had nominal power in the government there but was hamstrung by its poor relationship with its unity government partner, Fatah.
Michael Williams, a senior UN coordinator for the Middle East, told the BBC that, "I think we're witnessing a Hamas takeover in Gaza which will be very difficult to reverse ."