- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 7, 2007

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday declared Hamas’ militia in the Gaza Strip illegal, and the Islamic movement responded by defiantly announcing plans to double the size of the paramilitary unit.

Three more Hamas supporters were killed in the factional fighting that is threatening to plunge the Palestinian territories into civil war.

Mr. Abbas outlawed the Executive Force, issuing the decree two days after Hamas gunmen stormed the home of a top pro-Fatah security commander in northern Gaza and killed the man and seven bodyguards. It was the deadliest battle yet during the recent wave of infighting.

Mr. 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.”

In Gaza, Hamas’ stronghold, leaders of the group defiantly rejected Mr. Abbas’ decree and announced plans to double the size of its Executive Force to 12,000. Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Abu Hilal of Hamas said that Mr. Abbas was giving the green light for attacks on Hamas security men and that the unit would “deal firmly” with anyone who attacks it.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas accused Mr. Abbas of trying to deepen 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.

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

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

Gunmen in the West Bank yesterday stopped the car of Nablus’ deputy mayor, Mahdi al-Khamdali of Hamas, pulled him out and took him away in another car, security officials said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the officials said they believed the kidnappers were Fatah supporters.

In Ramallah, gunmen stormed the offices of the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry, shot the office manager in the legs and took him away, security officials said. The man, also a Hamas supporter, was released in a nearby town and hospitalized, the officials said.

Shopkeepers in the West Bank city of Hebron closed their stores in a protest action ordered by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a violent group affiliated with Fatah.

Fatah and Hamas have been wrangling over power since the Islamic group defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections a year ago and gained control over most Palestinian government functions. Mr. Abbas, who was elected in a separate election, retained his post as president, and Fatah continued to dominate security forces.

Challenging that position, Hamas formed its own security unit, the Executive Force, last 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.

Mr. Abbas claims authority over most Palestinian security forces, but Hamas controls the Interior Ministry, which also has security responsibilities. The various forces were formed more than a decade ago by the now-deceased Yasser Arafat as part of his autocratic style of rule, in which he created rivalries to keep potential challengers weak.

After years of corruption and fighting with Israel, the Fatah forces — which number about 18,000 — have become largely ineffective, fueling widespread lawlessness.

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