HAMAS FIGHTERS LAUNCHED a fierce offensive on Gaza City yesterday, attacking the main security bases and the presidentâ€™s compound with mortars and rockets and sending some of the rival Fateh forces fleeing in disarray as the Islamic group appeared close to taking over the entire Gaza Strip.With the fighting raging on rooftops and streets in nearly all corners of Gaza, residents huddled in fear in their homes, hoping to keep their families safe from stray bullets and shrapnel.
At least 15 people were killed in fighting Wednesday, bringing the total in the four-day campaign to nearly 60, according to the Associated Press.
Fayez Abu Taha, 45, a businessman in the southern town of Rafah, said he was trapped in his apartment building with his family after Hamas fighters took over a nearby rooftop and Fateh responded by taking over the roof of his building.
â€œI donâ€™t know what they are battling for now,â€ he said. â€œI can see the bullets flying from my windows. Coming and going.â€ Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fateh called the fighting â€œmadnessâ€ and pleaded with Hamasâ€™ exiled leader for a halt to the violence. Abbasâ€™ forces â€” desperately trying to cling to their besieged bases in Gaza â€” lashed out at the president, saying he left them with no directions and no support in the fight.
The rout of the security forces was so bad that 40 Palestinian security officers broke through the border fence in Rafah and fled into Egypt seeking safety, Egyptian police said.
â€œWhatÂ can I say? This is a fall, a collapse,â€ said Col. Nasser Khaldi, a senior police official in Rafah.
Jordan yesterday said it was â€œdeeply dismayed and concernedâ€, and denounced the fighting.
â€œThe Jordanian government demands all Palestinian factions immediately stop infighting and shedding Palestinian blood,â€ Government Spokesperson Nasser Judeh said in a statement carried by the Jordan News Agency, Petra.
â€œThe Palestinian factions should be up to meeting the Palestinian peopleâ€™s aspirations and struggle to restore their legitimate rights.â€
Judeh said the government calls on all Palestinian groups to close ranks, warning that infighting harms the Palestinian cause, Petra reported.
In Washington, US officials condemned the fighting. â€œViolence certainly does not serve the interest of the Palestinian people, and itâ€™s not going to bring the peace and prosperity that they deserve,â€ White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
Among those killed Wednesday was a man shot when Hamas gunmen fired at a peaceful protest against the violence, witnesses said.
In one dramatic battle, hundreds of members of the Fateh-allied Bakr clan, which had fought fiercely for two days, surrendered to masked Hamas gunmen and were led, arms raised in the air, to a nearby mosque. Footage broadcast on Hamasâ€™ Al Aqsa TV showed some of the Bakr women trying to enter the mosque. Hamas gunmen later drove off with some of the Bakr fighters, witnesses said.
Two women from the clan tried to leave the area to take a sick girl to a hospital and were shot and killed by jittery Hamas gunmen, a clan member said.
Hamas, already in control of much of northern Gaza, seized the southern town of Khan Younis on Wednesday and began a coordinated assault on the town of Rafah, security officials said.
On Wednesday afternoon, they launched attacks on the three main compounds of the Fateh-allied forces in Gaza City â€” the headquarters of the Preventive Security, the Intelligence Service and the National Forces â€” in what could usher in the final phase of the battle.
Hamas fighters, firing rockets and mortar shells, took over the rooftops in nearby houses and cut off the roads to prevent reinforcements from arriving. They called on the beleaguered Fateh forces to surrender.
Hamas gunmen in high-rise buildings also fired at Abbasâ€™ Gaza office and house and his guard force returned fire.
Abbas was in the West Bank at the time of the fighting.
During the battle at the Preventive Security base, both sides fired wildly from high-rise rooftops.
Wael Abdul Jawad, a physician trapped in his apartment, said he heard Fateh fighters shouting at colleagues on an adjacent roof to send them more ammunition. â€œAll of us are terrified here. Shooting came through the windows of our apartment, children are screaming. We are hearing from a nearby mosque the call by Hamas to surrender,â€ he said.
â€œThose fighters on rooftops are like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. They donâ€™t know where to shoot,â€ he said.
Earlier Wednesday, Hamas gunmen surrounded a security headquarters in Khan Younis and called on everyone inside to leave or they would blow it up, witnesses said. The building was then destroyed by a bomb planted in a tunnel underneath it, said Ali Qaisi, a presidential guard spokesman.
Security forces later said they lost control of the town.
â€œKhan Younis is finished, but we are still holding on in Rafah,â€ said Ziad Sarafandi, a senior security official.
Soon after, Hamas men blew up a second security building near Rafah after a long gunbattle and other battles raged in the town, said Khaldi, the senior police official.
â€œThey are shooting at anyone and everyone who is Fateh,â€ said Youssef Abu Siyam, a Preventive Security officer in Rafah.
Hamas and Fateh have waged a sporadic power struggle since Hamas won parliamentary elections last year, ending four decades of Fateh rule. But the battles have worsened in recent days as Hamas began a systematic assault on security forces to take over Gaza.
The fighting spilled into the Fateh-dominated West Bank.
Hamas and Fateh gunmen exchanged fire in the city of Nablus and a nearby refugee camp after Fateh gunmen tried to storm a pro-Hamas TV production company. Hamas said 12 people of its fighters were wounded.
On Wednesday, Abbas spoke by phone with the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal to try to stop the crisis, said Abbas aide Nimr Hamad.
â€œThis is madness, the madness that is going on in Gaza now,â€ Abbas told reporters.
The UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides aid to Palestinian refugees, said it would curtail its operations after two of its Palestinian workers were killed by crossfire. â€œWe are scaling back, we are not pulling back,â€ said the agencyâ€™s Gaza director, John Ging.
Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the clashes could have been avoided if Abbas had given the Hamas-led Cabinet control over the security forces, which he blamed for a wave of kidnappings, torture and violence in Gaza.