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Hamas Asserts Control in Gaza Fighting

ALEX COHEN, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, the death of an American soldier after he served two tours in Iraq. Sergeant Lawrence Sprader died on a training drill in Texas.

COHEN: But first, to the Middle East, where after five days of fierce battles between Palestinian factions, Hamas fighters are declaring victory over their Fatah rivals in the Gaza Strip.

NPR's Eric Westervelt joins us now. He's on top of an apartment building in the center of Gaza City.

Eric, can you describe what you're seeing right now?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, gunfire continues to crackle throughout the city. The streets are completely deserted, except for gunmen. Also, smoke is coming up from a nearby police station. According to doctors we've spoken to, at least 25 people, mostly Fatah gunmen, have been killed in today's fighting.

COHEN: The fighting appears to have been particularly brutal around a Fatah stronghold known as the Preventative Security Headquarters. What's been going on there?

WESTERVELT: That's' right. At this compound civilian witnesses and Fatah fighters say that after the compound fell to Hamas gunmen after fierce fighting, the Hamas dragged several Fatah gunmen into the street and executed them at point-blank range. And Hamas radio and TV are broadcasting messages declaring victory. They've shown images of captured Fatah fighters stripped to their underwear, being led out with their arms in the air.

And the loss of this compound is really devastating for Fatah. Hamas now has almost complete control of the Gaza Strip, except for a few security compounds. Hamas has given an ultimatum to Fatah to surrender those remaining places. And as you can hear, the fight for those compounds continues right now.

COHEN: So any sense of what will happen now in Gaza and who will govern?

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WESTERVELT: Well, it appears Hamas is poised to take full political as well as military control of the Gaza Strip. I mean Hamas spokesman Islam Shahawan told Hamas radio, quote, "The era of justice and Islamic rule have arrived." Sami Abu Zuhri, a hard-line senior Hamas official and another spokesman here, called the Hamas offensive Gaza's second liberation, a reference to Israel's unilateral pullout from Gaza two years ago.

So Hamas members are already lauding what appears to be this imminent victory throughout Gaza. And they see this gain - they see these gains as propelled by their Islamic faith, and they see themselves as cleansing a corrupt Fatah system.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

COHEN: Eric, it's sounding like it's getting pretty intense there behind you.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

WESTERVELT: Yeah, it is. I mean, the battle continues for the two remaining headquarters of Fatah, the presidential compound - sorry, just getting some more gunfire nearby - and another Fatah stronghold. As you can hear, there's RPGs in the air. There's 50-caliber machine guns, all kinds of gun noises going on.

COHEN: There are signs that the Palestinian president and the head of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas, may enact emergency powers. What would that mean on the ground?

WESTERVELT: Well, here in Gaza, such a move would be largely irrelevant. Abbas has become increasingly irrelevant and weak in Gaza even before this outbreak of fighting. And his remaining forces now are being overrun. So he can declare what he wants for the West Bank. But in terms of Gaza, any decrees really don't have any power of enforcement.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

COHEN: NPR's Eric Westervelt joined us from the Gaza Strip. Thank you so much, Eric.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alex Cohen is the reporter for NPR's fastest-growing daily news program, Day to Day where she has covered everything from homicides in New Orleans to the controversies swirling around the frosty dessert known as Pinkberry.
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.