Gunfire Dies Down as Hamas Takes Over Gaza

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Israelis are calling it "Hamastan." After almost a week of fighting, the militant Islamist group Hamas has seized control of the Gaza Strip from forces of the Fatah movement, loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. As the gunfire died down, residents began to emerge to survey the damage.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

In the Gaza Strip today, looters ransacked buildings and supporters of the Islamist group Hamas celebrated in the streets. Hamas gunmen routed fighters of the Fatah movement after six bloody days. In that time, more than 100 Palestinians were killed.

Today, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas began forming an emergency government in the West Bank, appointing officials and cording the West. But in Gaza, Hamas dismissed the Palestinian president's moves as meaningless.

From Gaza, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

ERIC WESTERVELT: After Friday prayers, some 5,000 Hamas supporters crowded into Omar al-Mukhtar Street in the courtyard of the parliament building in downtown Gaza City. They were celebrating what many called a cleansing of corrupt collaborators from Fatah, the movement that has dominated Gaza for more than three decades.

Lakariya Sharnubi(ph) was knocking down and trashing yellow Fatah flags with a long, wooden stick.

Mr. LAKARIYA SHARNUBI (Hamas Supporter): (Arabic spoken)

WESTERVELT: I'm doing this because Fatah's crap, Sharnubi said, and they collaborate with the Jews.

Other Hamas supporters celebrated their victory over Fatah forces with celebratory gunfire and the systematic looting of Fatah compounds, including the beachside presidential office complex, which fell to Hamas forces last night without a fight. Hamas gunmen today carted off chairs, TVs and computers, even a few Fatah cars including a van and a Mercedes Benz.

A Hamas gunman who gave his name as Abu Suhav(ph) called Hamas' victory an Islamic liberation of Gaza.

Mr. ABU SAHAV (Hamas Gunman): (Through Translator) By the will of God, yes it will bring us much closer to - not the revolutionary state but to the Islamic states here.

WESTERVELT: Hamas captured large caches of weapons and equipment from Fatah including heavy machineguns, ammunition and several old yet still functioning armored personnel carriers. Abu Suhav stood next to the metal frame of an anti-aircraft gun sunk into the sand next to the president's offices.

Mr. SAHAV: (Through Translator) What it means for me, a great braveness of my Islam, which is the building over Gaza which will be the first place where Islam would invade all over. And this kind of machinegun will be only targeting the Israeli helicopters and airplanes, and after being targeting the Palestinian fighters.

WESTERVELT: Across town at the Gaza home of controversial Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, looters were busily and happily stripping his luxurious villa of everything - marble flooring, ceramic roof shingles, wiring and more.

We're here at Mohammed Dahlan's garden and here's a young man studiously trying to take down a palm tree in his garden. They're taking out windows, taking out pieces of wood. The house is still smoldering and burning.

Dahlan led a major crackdown against Hamas in the mid-90s and he's long been backed by the United States. These looters lashed out at the Fatah leader who's now in the West Bank, calling Dahlan a collaborator who's getting what he deserves.

Unidentified Man: (Through Translator) All the people are hungry. They cannot find their food and he's living in a paradise here.

WESTERVELT: Hamas gunmen were protecting, not looting the Gaza residents of President Mahmoud Abbas. Twenty-one-year-old Abu Mahmoud(ph), a member of Hamas' paramilitary executive force, stood guard outside Abbas' house holding his AK-47, a hand grenade clipped to his jacket. Behind him, a green Hamas flag flew over the presidential driveway.

Mr. ABU MAHMOUD (Member, Paramilitary Executive Force, Hamas): (Through Translator) This flag is reflecting that Hamas - they brought an end for these collaborators inside our society.

WESTERVELT: The factional violence in Gaza started more than a year ago, not long after Hamas swept parliamentary elections. But in the last week, the violence grew particularly vicious with both factions committing atrocities. Enemies were tied up and thrown off buildings. Hamas executed several captured fighters in the street. Numerous Fatah loyalists were arrested in the last day's fighting.

Today, scores of vanquished Fatah men are angry and bitter in what was intended as a goodwill gesture, the leader of Hamas' main armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al Qassam Brigades, announced today a general amnesty for capture Fatah gunmen and security officials.

Abu Ubaida is the militant group's spokesman.

Mr. ABU UBAIDA (Spokesman, Izz ad-Din al Qassam Brigades): (Through Translator) Let today, Friday, be the day for mercy and forgiveness. Working from our Islamic principles, the Qassam Bridges have decided to give general forgiveness for all the leaders of the security forces and all the coup d'etat-makers.

WESTERVELT: The Qassam Brigades also warned kidnappers to immediately release Alan Johnston, the BBC News correspondent who's been held captive by a Gaza clan for more than three months.

Hamas fighters say they took by the gun this week what they thought they'd accomplished in their election win a year and a half ago. Gaza streets were calm and began to return to normal today, but the spasm of internal violence has left many residents shaken and worried.

AMANI(ph): First of all, as a woman and maybe you would think that they would force women to wear the veil.

WESTERVELT: Amani, who didn't want her full name used, is secular. She is the mother of three teenage girls and works for a non-governmental agency here. Gaza's long been more culturally conservative than the West Bank. But Amani says she wonders if Hamas, emboldened by its military win, will now slowly start to impose broader social and cultural restrictions here.

Amani looked out at the thousands celebrating near her home with alarm.

AMANI: I'm not comfortable at all. I'm really shocked. I don't feel that it's victory and its kind of liberation. How stupid they are that they are happy for this kind of victory. In just a few days and they will realize that they are going to the hell, it will not be a victory.

WESTERVELT: Today, the quartet of Mideast peacemakers - the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - voiced support for Fatah's leader and Palestinian President Abbas in his effort to create an emergency government after he dissolved the unity government with Hamas last night.

Today, Abbas appointed Salam Fayyad, a pro-Western independent, to be the new prime minister. But Abbas' emergency cabinet will have little or no power in Gaza. Hamas leaders here called Abbas' moves hollow and worthless. Hamas gunmen looting Abbas' compound today said their prime minister remains Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. It's now clear the divide between the West Bank and Gaza is complete, and the Palestinian territories appear headed for a turbulent and uncertain future.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza City.

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