Hamas and Fatah may have passed the point of no return: The unprecedented viciousness of the renewed fighting between the rival Palestinian factions in Gaza makes any new cease-fire difficult to envisage; this time, it may be a fight to the death.
Since the new clashes erupted on Sunday, gangs have tossed their enemies alive off 15-story buildings, shot down one another's children, and burst into hospitals to finish off wounded foes lying helplessly in bed. The revenge motive alone could now be enough to sustain the civil war.
The fighters of Hamas are better organized and motivated than those of President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah organization, and by the second day of fighting they had seized the advantage, flushing Fatah militants out of security posts and installations throughout the Gaza Strip. Doctors reported that in the last 24 hours, 21 Palestinians have been killed and another 120 wounded in the fighting. Both Hamas and Fatah have vowed to kill each other's political and military leaders, and have tried to do so with a vengance. Twice in the past 48 hours, Fatah members shelled the home of Hamas leader and Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh. He and his family were unhurt.
It did not help the morale of Fatah gunmen that their senior commander, Mohammed Dahlan a sharp-suited favorite of the Israelis and the U.S. slipped out of Gaza as soon as the fighting started. Soon afterwards, Hamas members cornered a top Dahlan commander, Jamal Abud a-Jediyan, near his home and pumped 45 bullets into him. One Fatah officer, Colonel Nasser Khaldi, contacted by a news agency, complained: "There is a weakness of our leaders. Hamas is just taking over our positions. There are no orders."
Meanwhile, President Abbas, who remains a safe distance away from the fury of Gaza at his fortress home in the West Bank city of Ramallah, has accused Hamas his partner in a short-lived unity government of trying to stage a coup. Abbas aides warned that unless Hamas calls off its fighters in Gaza, Fatah will begin targeting Hamas members in the West Bank, where Fatah may be marginally stronger than the Islamists.
The reverses being inflicted on Fatah in Gaza have alarmed the Bush Administration, which has been backing Abbas. Washington sees the Palestinian Authority President as more moderate and flexible than the Islamists of Hamas, but at the same time, too mercurial and indecisive to take charge and rally the disparate and demoralized Fatah forces. Tel Aviv intelligence sources tell TIME that the U.S. is putting urgent pressure on Israel to open up Gaza's sealed frontiers to allow in shipments of Israeli ammunition and weapons to enable Fatah to turn the tide. As of Monday, the Israeli military was balking at the request, out of concern that new shipments of weapons might eventually be turned against Israel.
"How do we explain it if mortar shells with Israeli markings are then used to shell towns inside Israel?" one officer asked.
More importantly, the Israelis are more realistic and better-informed than Washington as to what's happening in Gaza, and its likely outcome. Many Israeli intelligence officers doubt that a last-minute infusion of weapons could shift the balance away from Hamas. By Tuesday at dusk, 200 Hamas fighters had besieged a main Fatah headquarters, where 500 fighters were holed up inside, and were pounding the building with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. By nightfall, Hamas had overrun their rivals' last bastion. Elsewhere in Gaza, say locals, droves of Fatah milita are surrendering. Israeli arms could be delivered to the gates of Gaza, but it is likely that nobody among the Fatah forces is capable any longer of fighting their way through Hamas' lines to pick up the weapons. It could, quite simply, be too late to help Abbas' men in Gaza.
With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv