Hamas pledges to boost force in Gaza, Abbas says unit illegal

news11.jpgGAZA CITY (AP) — Hamas said Saturday it would double the size of its paramilitary force in Gaza, defying President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to outlaw the unit and raising the stakes in an increasingly bloody power struggle between the two rivals.

Three Hamas supporters were killed in continued factional fighting Saturday.

Fateh and Hamas have been wrangling for power since the Islamic group defeated Fateh in parliamentary elections a year ago and gained control over most government functions.

The dispute has centred in large part on control of the security forces. In a challenge to Fateh’s domination of the security forces, Hamas formed its own unit, the so-called Executive Force, in the spring, recruiting many former members of the Hamas military wing.

Tensions between the rival security forces kept building in the streets until large-scale fighting erupted last month. Since then, more than two dozen people have been killed.

On Saturday, Abbas outlawed the Executive Force. He issued the decree two days after Hamas men stormed the home of a top pro-Fateh security commander in northern Gaza, killing the man and seven bodyguards. It was the deadliest battle yet during the recent wave of infighting.

Abbas’ office said the decision was made “in light of continued security chaos and assassinations of a number of our fighters… and in light of the failure of existing agencies and security apparatuses in imposing law and order and protecting the security of the citizens”.

The statement said the Hamas force was “outside the law” and “will be dealt with accordingly as long as it is not immediately folded into legal security forces”. Abbas also confirmed that the US is sending aid to boost the Palestinian security forces. US officials said Friday that President George W. Bush is asking Congress to provide $83 million for security forces loyal to Abbas.

Abbas claims authority over most of the Palestinian security forces, but Hamas controls the interior ministry, which also oversees security responsibilities. The myriad security forces were formed more than a decade ago by the late Yasser Arafat, as part of his autocratic style of rule in which he created rivalries to keep challengers at bay.

After years of corruption and fighting with Israel, the forces have become largely ineffective, fuelling widespread lawlessness, particularly in Gaza. When Hamas formed its new unit, it said the move was needed to impose order.

In Gaza, Hamas’ stronghold, leaders of the group defiantly rejected Abbas’ decree.

Interior ministry spokesman Khaled Abu Hilal said Abbas was giving the green light for attacks on Hamas security men and that the unit would “deal firmly” with anyone who attacks it. He also announced plans to double the size of the force to 12,000 members, compared with some 18,000 security men aligned with Fateh.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas backed the Executive Force and accused Abbas of deepening the rift between the two camps.

“I’m completely convinced that there are those who don’t want the Palestinian scene to enjoy calm and stability or to create the appropriate atmosphere for starting serious and deep dialogue aimed at reaching a national unity government,” he said.

Abbas, a political moderate, has been urging Hamas to join Fateh in a coalition in hopes of ending international isolation and sanctions against the current Hamas-led government. But months of negotiations broke down in late November, sparking the latest wave of violence.

Abbas wants to restart peace talks with Israel, while Hamas refuses to recognise Jewish state.

Abbas has in the past unsuccessfully tried to disband the Hamas force, and later agreed to integrate the force into existing security units. Those efforts also failed.

Hamas officials said they were open to such an idea, but only if Abbas announces a massive overhaul of the current command structure.

Abbas’ decree said the president plans a reshuffle of the commanders, but gave no details. Several days ago, Abbas appointed Brig. Gen. Jamal Kayed, a Fateh loyalist, to head the National Security Force in Gaza, filling a vacant post.

Kayed, a former presidential bodyguard, is believed to have generally good relations with Hamas.

Late Saturday, three members of a pro-Hamas family were killed by gunmen from a rival clan considered to be Fateh supporters, witnesses and family members said. The same Fateh family has kidnapped about 10 Hamas supporters in recent days, Hamas officials said.

Hamas’ radio station in Gaza said one of the dead was a member of the Executive Force.

The Palestinian infighting has been largely confined to Gaza, but in recent days has begun to spread to the West Bank with a series of kidnappings and shootings.

On Saturday, gunmen in the West Bank stopped the car of Nablus’ deputy mayor, Mahdi Khamdali of Hamas, pulled him out and took him away in a separate car, security officials said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the officials said they believed the kidnappers were Fateh supporters.

In Ramallah, fighters stormed the offices of the Hamas-controlled interior ministry, shot the office manager in the legs and took him away, Palestinian security officials said. The man, also a Hamas supporter, was released in a nearby town and hospitalised, the officials said.

Meanwhile, shopkeepers in the West Bank city of Hebron closed their stores to protest the Gaza fighting. The strike was launched at the request of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent group affiliated with Fateh.

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