Jerusalem – On Saturday night, Israel allowed senior Fatah officials from Gaza to flee into Israeli territory after Hamas seized control of their last stronghold in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas’ offensive began a little more than a week ago after five Hamas members were killed in a mysterious explosion. The terror group’s officials accused Fatah of being responsible for the explosion and began an effort to crush Fatah resistance.

After fierce battles over the weekend, Gaza City’s Sajaiya neighborhood fell. Sajaiya served as the stronghold of the Hilles clan, most of whom support Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader. Nine Palestinians were killed in the battles, three of whom were Hamas members and a child from the Hilles clan. More than 100 people were injured, and some 150 Fatah members were arrested.

“We got hit hard,” Fatah officials said yesterday. “Those battles were meant to erase our presence in the Gaza Strip. This is political cleansing. Hamas had no qualms about using every means used in cruel dictatorships. They have military power, and with the force of guns they’re imposing their will on Gaza.”

Sources in Gaza also criticized Israel’s conduct in the past two years. They said Israel has “stood with its arms folded in light of Hamas’ build-up.” Hamas’ growth in power followed on the heels of the Israeli military withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the subsequent 2006 Palestinian elections in which Hamas came out on top.

“It’s clear to us that the next threat will be in Ashdod and even Tel Aviv, and Israel is going to pay for its failure,” a Gaza source said.

Gaza residents described the battles in Sajaiya as having been waged “viciously” by Hamas, even more so than what they had previously seen during clashes with the Israelis.

Thousands of Hamas militiamen from all of the organization’s units fired off more than 300 mortar shells, two Qassam rockets and dozens of rocket-propelled grenades into the Gaza City neighborhood. A three-story building was blown up with its residents still inside, and no information exists as to their fates.

Hamas marksmen positioned themselves on the minarets of a mosque and fired at anyone who went into the street. In the course of the battles, Hamas used three tunnels it had dug out of the neighborhood in the direction of the Karni border crossing in order to send in reinforcements. All of the entrances and exits to and from the neighborhood were sealed.

Members of the Hilles clan, 188 in all, fled the neighborhood after it fell to Hamas, heading toward Israel, with Hamas militiamen pursuing them with mortar fire. Some of those mortar shells landed in Israel.

The men who took flight, including clan chieftain Ahmed Hilles, found themselves in a crossfire, after the Israel Defense Forces began firing on Hamas positions.They stood in place for hours amid the crossfire., begging access to Israeli territory.

In the end, the Israelis acceded to Mr. Abbas’ request to allow them into Israel, however, he refused to grant them asylum on the West Bank. They laid down their arms and were stripped in order to undergo a security search to ensure that Hamas infiltrators were not among them.

The injured, who had been shot in the back by Hamas, were evacuated to Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, Israel and the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, Israel.

Israel has received a petition from The Association for Civil Rights in Israel demanding that the Palestinians not be deported to Gaza. However, 32 of them have been sent back as of yesterday, and five remain in Hamas custody.

“This is a case of humanitarian aid. We have no intention of getting involved in the inner fighting in Gaza,” Israeli security officials said.

A senior Israeli official said that the fighting in the Gaza Strip only sharpens the understanding that Mr. Abbas has no chance to regain control of the Gaza Strip.

“The international community has suggested having Abbas’ men sit at the border crossings, which would allow them to be reopened,” the Israeli source said. “But Fatah is weak and has been further weakened, and the border crossings will be controlled in practice by Hamas. That makes that international solution unrealistic.”

The IDF Gaza Division’s alert status was raised in response to the fighting in Gaza due to concerns that the internal strife would, once again, lead to shooting at Israel. Fears on the Israeli side exist that more Palestinians will to go to border fence and will demand to be allowed into Israel. However, Israeli security officials say they believe Hamas had a vested interest in preserving the quiet.

Tensions between the rival Palestinian factions rose significantly over the weekend. Fatah members, on the West Bank arrested a number of Hamas officials, including a senior official, Mr. Muhammad Ghazal, whom they threatened to execute unless the fighting in Sajaiya stopped. Mr. Ghazal regained his freedom after it became clear that the Gaza City neighborhood had fallen to Hamas.

“The rift between Hamas and the national movement is an irreversible fact,” Fatah officials in Nablus said yesterday. “I doubt whether it will be possible to heal that rift in the Palestinian people.”

Sources in Gaza said they believed that now that Fatah has been wiped off the political map in Gaza, Hamas will begin to fight against the even more radical Islamic organizations in Gaza, mainly against the Doghmush clan, in an effort to consolidate its power. The clan poses a formidable armed opposition to Hamas in Gaza.

David Bedein can be reached at dbedein@israelbehindthenews.com. His Web site is www.IsraelBehindTheNews.com

©The Bulletin 2008

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David Bedein is an MSW community organizer and an investigative journalist.   In 1987, Bedein established the Israel Resource News Agency at Beit Agron to accompany foreign journalists in their coverage of Israel, to balance the media lobbies established by the PLO and their allies.   Mr. Bedein has reported for news outlets such as CNN Radio, Makor Rishon, Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, BBC and The Jerusalem Post, For four years, Mr. Bedein acted as the Middle East correspondent for The Philadelphia Bulletin, writing 1,062 articles until the newspaper ceased operation in 2010. Bedein has covered breaking Middle East negotiations in Oslo, Ottawa, Shepherdstown, The Wye Plantation, Annapolis, Geneva, Nicosia, Washington, D.C., London, Bonn, and Vienna. Bedein has overseen investigative studies of the Palestinian Authority, the Expulsion Process from Gush Katif and Samaria, The Peres Center for Peace, Peace Now, The International Center for Economic Cooperation of Yossi Beilin, the ISM, Adalah, and the New Israel Fund.   Since 2005, Bedein has also served as Director of the Center for Near East Policy Research.   A focus of the center's investigations is The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In that context, Bedein authored Roadblock to Peace: How the UN Perpetuates the Arab-Israeli Conflict - UNRWA Policies Reconsidered, which caps Bedein's 28 years of investigations of UNRWA. The Center for Near East Policy Research has been instrumental in reaching elected officials, decision makers and journalists, commissioning studies, reports, news stories and films. In 2009, the center began decided to produce short movies, in addition to monographs, to film every aspect of UNRWA education in a clear and cogent fashion.   The center has so far produced seven short documentary pieces n UNRWA which have received international acclaim and recognition, showing how which UNRWA promotes anti-Semitism and incitement to violence in their education'   In sum, Bedein has pioneered The UNRWA Reform Initiative, a strategy which calls for donor nations to insist on reasonable reforms of UNRWA. Bedein and his team of experts provide timely briefings to members to legislative bodies world wide, bringing the results of his investigations to donor nations, while demanding reforms based on transparency, refugee resettlement and the demand that terrorists be removed from the UNRWA schools and UNRWA payroll.   Bedein's work can be found at: www.IsraelBehindTheNews.com and www.cfnepr.com. A new site,unrwa-monitor.com, will be launched very soon.