Hundreds of Hamas fighters firing rockets and mortar shells captured the headquarters of the Fatah-allied security forces in northern Gaza on Tuesday, scoring a key victory in the bloody battle for control of the seaside strip.
Both sides said Gaza had descended into civil war. Dozens have been killed since Monday and battles over security positions spread to central Gaza early Wednesday. Gunmen fought for control of high-rise buildings in Gaza City, and Hamas said it seized and bulldozed a key Fatah outpost that controls Gaza's main north-south road.
Tuesday's battles marked a turning point, with Hamas moving systematically to seize Fatah positions in what some in the Islamic militant group said would be a decisive phase in the yearlong power struggle. The confrontations became increasingly brutal in recent days, with some killed execution-style in the streets, others in hospital shootouts or thrown off rooftops.
The conflict escalated further when the Fatah central committee decided to suspend the activities of its ministers in the government it shares with Hamas. In an emergency meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Fatah decided on a full withdrawal if the fighting doesn't stop, said government spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh.
President Mahmoud Abbas accused the Islamic militants of Hamas of trying to stage a coup.
A survivor of the Hamas assault on the northern security headquarters said the Fatah forces were outgunned and reinforcements never arrived. "We were pounded with mortar, mortar, mortar," the Fatah fighter, who only gave his first name, Amjad, said, breathing heavily. "They had no mercy. It was boom, boom. They had rockets that could reach almost half of the compound."
Battles raged across the Gaza Strip during the day. The staccato of gunfire echoed across Gaza City, plumes of smoke rose into the air from far-flung neighborhoods and one firefight sent a dozen preschoolers scrambling for cover.
In a sign of the heightened hostilities, both sides threatened to kill each other's leaders. A rocket-propelled grenade damaged the home of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and four mortar shells slammed into Abbas' Gaza City office. Neither attack caused any injuries.
Desperately trying to boost morale, disorganized Fatah forces attacked Hamas' main TV station, but were repelled after a heavy battle. The station later showed a group of captured men it said were among the attackers, blood streaming down their faces.
Many Gazans, pinned down in their homes, were furious with the combatants. "Both Fatah and Hamas are leading us to death and destruction," said Ayya Khalil, 29, whose husband serves as an intelligence officer. "They don't care about us."
There was concern the fighting might spread to the West Bank, where Fatah has the upper hand, as Hamas notched victories in Gaza. Late Tuesday, Fatah gunmen wounded four Hamas activists in the West Bank city of Nablus, Fatah said in a statement.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed stationing international forces along the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt to prevent arms from reaching Palestinian militants, including Hamas. However, he ruled out assistance to Abbas' forces.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate halt to the violence and urged all sides to support Abbas.
The U.N. warned that its efforts to supply refugees with assistance were in jeopardy because of the fighting.
Hamas and Fatah have waged a power struggle in fits and spurts since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006, and Hamas signaled that the fighting was moving into a decisive phase. It ignored pleas by Abbas and exasperated Egyptian mediators to honor a cease-fire.
"Decisiveness will be in the field," said Islam Shahwan, spokesman for the Hamas military wing.
In contrast, Fatah commanders complained they were not given clear orders by Abbas to fight back and that they had no central command. Fatah's strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, has spent the last few weeks in Cairo because of a knee injury. Other leading Fatah officials left Gaza for the West Bank after previous rounds of bloodshed.
"There's a difference between leading on the ground and leading by mobile phone," police Col. Nasser Khaldi said of Dahlan's absence. "Hamas is just taking over our positions. There are no orders."
Both sides have been arming themselves in recent weeks, smuggling weapons through tunnels from Egypt.
Abbas accused Hamas leaders of trying to seize control of Gaza by force.
The headquarters of the Fatah-allied security forces in northern Gaza, a key prize for Hamas, was taken by the Islamic militants after several hours of battle. Some 200 Hamas fighters had fired mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at the compound, where some 500 Fatah loyalists were holed up and returned fire. Thirty-five jeeploads of Fatah fighters were sent as reinforcements. After nightfall, Hamas seized control, said a Hamas commander, Wael al-Shakra.
A Fatah security official confirmed the building had been lost. At least 12 people were killed and 30 wounded in the fighting.
Earlier, Hamas fighters also overran several smaller Fatah positions in Gaza.
Hamas gunmen also exchanged fire with Fatah forces at the southern security headquarters in the town of Khan Younis, but did not launch a major assault there. The town's streets were empty as people huddled inside. One Hamas man was killed, according to Hamas and medical officials.
In Gaza City, Hamas fired mortars and explosives at the pro-Fatah Preventive Security headquarters, drawing return fire from watchtowers in the compound. Elsewhere, Fatah fighters killed four Hamas gunmen in a battle near the besieged house of a senior Fatah commander.
The State Department and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, warning of a "very dangerous security situation," advised journalists not to travel to Gaza and urged any there to leave.
Even before the current outbreak of violence, no Western correspondents were based in Gaza. As the violence escalated this week, most journalists were staying off the streets, covering the conflict from the windows of high-rise buildings and keeping in touch with their sources by telephone.
Hamas and Fatah have been at odds since the Hamas election victory ended four decades of Fatah rule.
The sides agreed to share power in an uneasy coalition three months ago, but put off key disputes, including control over the security forces. Most of the forces are dominated by Fatah loyalists, while Hamas has formed its own militia and has thousands of gunmen at its command.
Beverley Milton-Edwards, a Hamas expert at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, said Gaza is heading for a final showdown. "This has become the existential battle for the soul of the Palestinian people," Milton-Edwards said.
Brutality has grown in recent days, with people shot at close range in street executions. On Sunday, a member of Abbas' presidential guard, Mohammed Sweirki of Fatah, was kidnapped and hurled off a 15-story apartment building, followed a few hours later by the killing of a Hamas fighter, Abu Kainas, thrown from the roof of a 12-story building in apparent retaliation. In all, more than 80 people have been killed since mid-May, most of them militants.
Human Rights Watch, blamed both sides. "Fatah and Hamas military forces have summarily executed captives, killed people not involved in hostilities, and engaged in gun battles with one another inside and near Palestinian hospitals," the New York-based group said in a statement.