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Hamas Gaining Control of Gaza


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.



And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The Palestinian group Hamas controls almost all the Gaza Strip now. It won that control after five days of fighting that left scores of people killed. Hamas has been seizing control from another major Palestinian group, the one led by the president, Mahmoud Abbas. His last few compounds are coming under mortar and rocket fire, and he's expected to appeal for an end to the fighting today.

NPR's Eric Westervelt is covering this story from Gaza City. And, Eric, when you move around Gaza, how do you tell who's in control of a particular neighborhood?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Steve, it's pretty difficult to tell who's in control of any given street corner. These gunmen aren't wearing uniforms. They're all wearing black masks and holding AK-47s. They're not waving flags. And you just have to know as you get closer to these areas and try to move incredibly slowly and carefully and present yourself as a journalist and be as careful as you can.

INSKEEP: And you've got gunmen on corner after corner, and some of them may just be manning checkpoints and others, for all you know, might be about to burst into shooting?


WESTERVELT: Yeah. The gunmen at these checkpoints are incredibly tense. We've been told a couple of times to drop our bags, even though we're clearly journalists. We have TV signs and microphones, but gunfights can break out anywhere.

INSKEEP: So how is it that Fatah has lost neighborhood after neighborhood to Hamas?

WESTERVELT: Well, Steve, Hamas has been generally better organized. They're very well equipped. They're able to carry out these complex attacks and ambushes and maneuvers, and their fighters are clearly more motivated and, in many ways, more disciplined than Fatah. I mean, Hamas continues to make gains on the ground. They're attacking the, really, the only four remaining strongholds of Fatah. These are heavily guarded compounds, including this sprawling beachside presidential compound.

And right now, a major Fatah security center, which is headquarters to both Fatah's intelligence and national security force, is under heavy attack. Hamas claims they've taken full control of it. Fatah denies it. We can hear some of the fighting still going on at this moment.

INSKEEP: Any chance of a cease-fire?

WESTERVELT: Not looking so good. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not made any strong statements about a cease-fire. Hamas has now listed several demands for any truce, including that their paramilitary executive force be formally integrated into the regular security forces. That was part of this Mecca agreement hammered out four months ago, by the way. Hamas is also demanding that Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan - a controversial Fatah leader here in Gaza - they're demanding that he and his associates be barred from participation in any Fatah-Hamas dialogue.

Now, there are unconfirmed local reports now that Mohammed Dahlan has returned to Gaza. And according to this report, he's now rallying Fatah fighters for some kind of counter-offensive. But again, it's just not clear right now, Steve, whether this is just wishful thinking by Fatah supporters or a reality.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Eric Westervelt. He's in the Gaza Strip, which is increasingly under the control of the Palestinian group Hamas. Of course, there's another major Palestinian area separate in geography, the West Bank. And, Eric, what's happening there?

WESTERVELT: Well, Fatah gunmen have tried to flex their muscles in the West Bank, Steve, where they're much stronger. They've kidnapped some Hamas members and attacked several Hamas buildings. But widespread violence has not yet broken out in the West Bank. President Abbas is in Ramallah. Almost all of the other Fatah leaders as well, by the way, have long since fled to the West Bank. The Fatah people left here are mainly mid-level officers and Fatah foot soldiers, and some of them are complaining a lot about a lack of leadership and an absence of clear orders on the ground in Gaza.

INSKEEP: So is it possible that you could end up with two geographically separate Palestinian areas that are under the control of two entirely separate groups, Fatah and Hamas?

WESTERVELT: Well, that's exactly what it's looking like, Steve, I mean, that Fatah will remain the power in the West Bank and Gaza will be under Hamas rule. I mean, Palestinians here are now joking, Steve, that this is the two-state solution to the conflict - one Hamas, one Fatah.

One analyst I spoke with this morning, Ayman Shaheen, called this scenario the death of Palestinian democracy. He said Abbas in Gaza would become an increasingly irrelevant, powerless symbolic figure, and he feared this kind of split in governance would prove untenable and would lead to more fighting.

INSKEEP: Must make peace negotiations even less likely with Israel.

WESTERVELT: Well, exactly. Although, I spoke with a senior Israeli official, Mark Regev, and he said despite all that's going on, Israel can still negotiate with Abbas. And in what you could charitably call a huge understatement, Regev said, quote, "If we were to negotiate with Abbas, maybe for the foreseeable future his ability to deliver in Gaza will be more limited."

INSKEEP: NPR's Eric Westervelt is in Gaza City. Eric, thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.