Hamas Asserts Control in Gaza Fighting

The Palestinian militant group Hamas controls most of the Gaza Strip and is declaring victory after five days of intense fighting with members of the rival Fatah movement.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, the death of an American soldier after he served two tours in Iraq. Sergeant Lawrence Sprader died on a training drill in Texas.

COHEN: But first, to the Middle East, where after five days of fierce battles between Palestinian factions, Hamas fighters are declaring victory over their Fatah rivals in the Gaza Strip.

NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us now. He's on top of an apartment building in the center of Gaza City.

Eric, can you describe what you're seeing right now?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, gunfire continues to crackle throughout the city. The streets are completely deserted, except for gunmen. Also, smoke is coming up from a nearby police station. According to doctors we've spoken to, at least 25 people, mostly Fatah gunmen, have been killed in today's fighting.

COHEN: The fighting appears to have been particularly brutal around a Fatah stronghold known as the Preventative Security Headquarters. What's been going on there?

WESTERVELT: That's' right. At this compound civilian witnesses and Fatah fighters say that after the compound fell to Hamas gunmen after fierce fighting, the Hamas dragged several Fatah gunmen into the street and executed them at point-blank range. And Hamas radio and TV are broadcasting messages declaring victory. They've shown images of captured Fatah fighters stripped to their underwear, being led out with their arms in the air.

And the loss of this compound is really devastating for Fatah. Hamas now has almost complete control of the Gaza Strip, except for a few security compounds. Hamas has given an ultimatum to Fatah to surrender those remaining places. And as you can hear, the fight for those compounds continues right now.

COHEN: So any sense of what will happen now in Gaza and who will govern?

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WESTERVELT: Well, it appears Hamas is poised to take full political as well as military control of the Gaza Strip. I mean Hamas spokesman Islam Shahawan told Hamas radio, quote, "The era of justice and Islamic rule have arrived." Sami Abu Zuhri, a hard-line senior Hamas official and another spokesman here, called the Hamas offensive Gaza's second liberation, a reference to Israel's unilateral pullout from Gaza two years ago.

So Hamas members are already lauding what appears to be this imminent victory throughout Gaza. And they see this gain - they see these gains as propelled by their Islamic faith, and they see themselves as cleansing a corrupt Fatah system.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

COHEN: Eric, it's sounding like it's getting pretty intense there behind you.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WESTERVELT: Yeah, it is. I mean, the battle continues for the two remaining headquarters of Fatah, the presidential compound - sorry, just getting some more gunfire nearby - and another Fatah stronghold. As you can hear, there's RPGs in the air. There's 50-caliber machine guns, all kinds of gun noises going on.

COHEN: There are signs that the Palestinian president and the head of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas, may enact emergency powers. What would that mean on the ground?

WESTERVELT: Well, here in Gaza, such a move would be largely irrelevant. Abbas has become increasingly irrelevant and weak in Gaza even before this outbreak of fighting. And his remaining forces now are being overrun. So he can declare what he wants for the West Bank. But in terms of Gaza, any decrees really don't have any power of enforcement.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

COHEN: NPR's Eric Westervelt joined us from the Gaza Strip. Thank you so much, Eric.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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Q&A: Hamas and Fatah

Hamas symbol

The official Hamas emblem shows two crossed swords in front of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The mosque is framed by two Palestinian flags with the phrases, in Arabic, "God is Great" and "Muhammad is the prophet of Allah." hide caption

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Fatah symbol

The official Fatah emblem depicts two fists holding rifles, with a hand grenade in between. In the background is a map of Israel and the occupied territories. hide caption

itoggle caption

Hamas and Fatah are rival Palestinian factions that have attacked Israel in the past. Here's a look at the two organizations:

What is Hamas?

Hamas, an Islamist group, has pursued a policy of "armed resistance" against Israel — carried out by suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilians — while also extending social-welfare programs to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank. Hamas' official name is Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement).

What is Fatah?

Fatah was the first exile group to launch attacks against Israel. Fatah's official name is Harakat al Tahrir al Falastini (Palestinian Liberation Movement). Fatah is the dominant member of the greater Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

What are the origins of these groups?

Hamas was founded in the Gaza Strip in 1987 by Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, both of whom have since been killed by Israel.

Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and political organization with branches throughout the Arab world. In 1988, Hamas wrote its charter, which calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and swears to "raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine." The charter is still in effect today.

However, Hamas member Ismail Haniya — named prime minister under the unity government — has spoken of a possible long-term truce with Israel, if Israel withdraws from territory occupied after the 1967 war.

Fatah was founded by the late Yasser Arafat and a small group of Palestinian nationalists in the late 1950s. The group is a member of the PLO, a loose umbrella group of a number of Palestinian organizations founded in Cairo in the mid-1960s.

Fatah quickly became the most powerful member of the PLO, which Arafat also led.

What does the PLO think of Israel?

In 1993 the PLO officially renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist. In exchange, PLO leaders were allowed to return from exile in Tunisia and recognized as the Palestinian Authority, the governing body of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. They were also allowed to set up Palestinian security forces. Although the PLO has officially renounced terrorism, some of its member organizations have been accused of or have claimed responsibility for continued attacks.

The PLO was initially based largely in Jordan. But after fighting between PLO guerrillas and the Jordanian army in 1970, a conflict known as Black September, the PLO was forced out of Jordan. Most of the guerrillas — and Yasser Arafat — settled in Lebanon. The PLO then launched frequent attacks on Israel from their Lebanese bases, prompting two Israeli invasions of Lebanon — in 1978 and 1982.

What approach does Hamas take toward Israel?

Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel. Its armed resistance has been carried out by suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilian buses, nightclubs and other venues. As a result the United States, Israel and the European Union have labeled it a "terrorist organization." Human Rights Watch has also criticized Hamas for its attacks on civilians.

Hamas' main claim for support among Palestinians comes from its provision of social welfare services that neither the Israelis nor Fatah provide. From its inception, Hamas has funded and developed an elaborate network of schools, orphanages, health clinics and other social services that have given it reach into every sector of its populations.

How is Fatah viewed as compared to Hamas?

Despite its violent past, Fatah is now seen as the more moderate Palestinian party. While the group's constitution also calls for the destruction of Israel, the group falls under the PLO, which has renounced terrorism. Fatah's leadership of the Palestinian Authority was seen as corrupt and inept by many Palestinians, which is the major reason for its loss of seats in the government in the 2006 election.

How have Hamas and Fatah fared politically?

In January 2006, Palestinian voters in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem voted for a new Palestinian legislature. Hamas won a major victory, taking 74 of the 132 seats, in an election deemed fair and honest by international observers. Its rival, the once-dominant Fatah party, criticized for ineffectiveness and corruption, took only 45 seats.

Fatah still controls the presidency, the highest elected position in the government. Mahmoud Abbas has held the position since January 2005. Fatah also controls roughly 70,000 police and security forces throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These forces regularly clash with Hamas loyalists.

The surprise political victory in 2006 gave Hamas control of the Palestinian government. It also created a conflict with Israel and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas refuses to accept Israel's right to exist and says it will not honor pre-existing treaties signed by the Palestinian Authority. In light of this, Israel, with the support of the United States and the European Union, launched a financial boycott of the Hamas-led government. Israel refused to pay the Palestinian Authority its monthly trade taxes, which Israel collects, and Washington has sought to freeze all bank transfers to the Palestinian Authority. The results deprived the authority's 150,000 civil servants of salaries for a time, but aid has continued to flow from the European Union and the United States via a specially devised "mechanism" that bypasses the Palestinian government.

How have recent events impacted the relationship between Hamas and Fatah?

In June, Hamas took control over the Gaza Strip, destroying the headquarters of President Abbas as well as other government buildings. As a result of the violence, Abbas dissolved the unity government, a power-sharing deal between the two groups that was signed on Feb. 9, 2007, and swore in an emergency government. He forced out the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who is a member of Hamas. Abbas named Salam Fayyad, a Western-backed independent lawmaker, to the post.

Hamas leaders have condemned the move, making a decision not to recognize the changes, and insisted that the Fatah-Hamas unity government formed in March remains in charge of the Palestinian Authority. Haniyeh has claimed that he continues to hold the position of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

Leaders from the United States, Europe and Israel have spoken out in support of Abbas and his new government — and plan to restore aid to the Palestinian people.

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