RAMALLAH - The Palestinian quest for an independent state was on the verge of collapse last night after Hamas militants took control of the Gaza Strip, banishing and executing their Fatah rivals and declaring Islamic rule on Israel's doorstep.
Fourteen years after the Oslo accords opened up the prospect of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, its putative territory was in danger of breaking into two warring entities as Hamas fighters routed Fatah gunmen at the end of a week of violence that has left almost 100 people, both gunmen and civilians, dead.
Last night Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and Fatah leader, declared a state of emergency from Ramallah in the West Bank and dissolved the three-month-old "national unity" government as he grasped for a strategy to undermine the "coup d'Ãƒ©tat".
But the deposed Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, said Mr Abbas's decision to dismiss him and his government was "hasty", pledging to stay in power. Mr Haniyeh told a late night Gaza news conference that Mr Abbas and his advisers had not considered "the consequences [of the decision] and its effects on the situation on the ground".
It was unclear how the president could impose his authority in Gaza, where the green flag of the Islamic resistance movement fluttered on many government buildings in the crowded coastal strip.
"We are telling our people that the past era has ended and will not return," Islam Shahawan, a Hamas spokesman, told the movement's radio station. "The era of justice and Islamic rule have arrived."
Qais Abu Leila, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation executive committee, said there was determination to take action to stop the "insurrection". "This is a fight to preserve everything that we have built over the last 14 years."
But in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, leaders appeared paralysed as they discussed how to stop the revolt. Some feared the turmoil could lead to the disintegration of the authority. Ominously, Fatah rounded up dozens of Hamas militants in the West Bank, where it is more dominant.
SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT
If you think a better world is possible, support our people-powered media model today
The corporate media puts the interests of the 1% ahead of all of us. That's wrong. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good.
If you believe the survival of independent media is vital to a healthy democracy, please step forward with a donation to nonprofit Common Dreams today:
The Bush administration described the Gaza events as "a source of profound concern", accusing Hamas of committing acts of terror. The EU suspended what few aid projects it still maintained there. The Arab League warned of a "disastrous outcome" to internecine fighting that has crackled on and off for more than six months.
The Hamas victory is widely seen as a boost for Iran and Syria, which have supported the militants, and a painful reversal for the pro-western regimes in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which worry about Tehran's meddling in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Palestine.
Jordan also fears intra-Palestinian fighting could spread from the West Bank and across the river into the kingdom, where at least half the population is of Palestinian origin. "Things have never been so bad," said one senior Arab diplomat.
Around 25 people were killed and 90 injured in yesterday's violence. Hospital staff said some of the dead had been shot in the head at close range.
Hamas gunmen took over the Palestinian Authority's security and military intelligence headquarters after a three-day siege. Sources close to the Palestinian president said Israel had ignored repeated requests to allow deliveries of ammunition to Palestinian Authority forces, leaving them outgunned by Hamas who have relied on smuggled munitions.
Last night, Hamas said it had executed the top Fatah militant in Gaza, Samih al-Madhoun. Witnesses said the conquest of the security headquarters was followed by many executions. One told the Associated Press he saw Hamas men carrying out executions, despite pleas from residents.
The civil war is rooted in a long-standing power struggle between Hamas, which won elections last year, and Fatah, the historic core of the PLO. Hamas, which refuses to formally recognise Israel or renounce violence, denounced Fatah officials who had negotiated with Israel as renegades and "collaborators".
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007