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Hamas proclaimed the era of Islamic rule had arrived in Gaza this evening as the final strongholds of the Palestinian security forces crumbled and President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency.
|Hamas fighters celebrate seizing the Fatah intelligence HQ|
Triumphant Hamas militants fired Kalashnikovs from Gaza rooftops, hailing the "liberation" of the territory from the moderate Fatah Party it sees as "collaborators" with Israel and the United States.
Israel and its allies were left to contemplate the emergence of an enemy state, a radical Islamic "Hamas-stan" on its Mediterranean coast and a moderate Palestinian stronghold on its other flank, in the larger West Bank.
After a day in which Hamas bombed and burnt its way into all but the president's compound on the Gaza coast, Mr Abbas belatedly declared a state of emergency and signed an edict dissolving the Fatah Hamas Unity government formed in March.
"We have decided to do the following, to dismiss (Hamas) Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh," said a spokesman for Mr Abbas.
The statement also suggested that Mr Abbas could try to call early elections but Hamas immediately dismissed his decrees as "worthless".
Arab and Muslim states appealed for calm, warning that the deadly fighting was threatening the Palestinian cause.
The United States, Britain and the EU pledged continuing support for Mr Abbas but his ability to lead the Palestinian Authority appeared damaged beyond repair.
This evening there were reports of officials from his Fatah party fleeing the presidential compound in motorboats.
Constant gunfire and the occasional explosion of a rocket propelled grenade echoed through the deserted city streets of Gaza City as Fatah's outnumbered fighters staged a desperate last stand.
"We are telling our people that the past era has ended and will not return," Islam Shahawan, a spokesman for Hamas' armed wing, told Hamas radio. "The era of justice and Islamic rule have arrived."
The fall of the internal security service headquarters in southern Gaza City marked a significant triumph for Hamas, whose members were rounded up and tortured by the service's officers during a crackdown on the movement in the late 1990s.
Hamas declared the compound would now be known as the Heresy Compound and the surrounding neighbourhood, known as Tel al Hawa, or Hill of the Air, would be renamed the Hill of Islam.
Among the Hamas hardliners now believed to be driving the offensive are ex-interior minister Said Siam and ex-foreign minister Mahmoud al Zahar, both of whom are believed to have been tortured by Fatah-run security forces.
Hamas said it had "executed" a top Fatah "collaborator" and issued a death list of other supporters of Mr Abbas. The White House accused them of "acts of terror".
Masked Islamist militants kneeled to the ground and kissed the pavement. A victorious gunman stood on the roof hoisting a green Hamas flag into the air and firing his Kalashnikov rifle jubilantly skyward.
A kilometre away, meanwhile, along Gaza City's beachfront, Mr Abbas' presidential guard were awaiting a final assault on one of the last Fatah-controlled bastions in the Gaza Strip.
Pickup trucks whipped through the neighbourhood distributing wooden crates filled with bullets to bleary eyed fighters.
Massive metal roadblocks were dragged into position sealing off the neighbourhood around Mr Abbas' compound from vehicle traffic. Civilians still living in the area were packing their families into cars and fleeing.
"There is no surrender for us now. There is only a fight to the death," said Fatah special forces fighter Abu Hassan, 30, who is unlikely to ever see his two year old daughter or seven month old son again.
"After Hamas take control there will be no place for us in Gaza," added Mr Hassan.
At least 100 Palestinians, mostly militants, have been killed since Gaza was plunged into civil war on Sunday.
|Hamas fighters during clashes in Gaza City|
The violence is spreading to the West Bank, where Fatah still remains in control. A firefight between Fatah and Hamas erupted in the north West Bank city of Nablus as security forces swept through the territory arresting Hamas members.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Mr Abbas today and underlined US support for Palestinian moderates committed to a negotiated peace with Israel, a spokesman said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said an international force along Gaza's border with Egypt should be considered and US State Department spokesman Sean
McCormack hinted the US would consider such a force, but most observers shared the view of one British diplomat that such an idea was "pie in the sky" given the volatile nature of the region.
The European Commission announced it was suspending all humanitarian aid projects in the Gaza Strip due to the violence, and Israeli officials debated the Jewish state's response to Hamas' looming victory.
Some Israeli hardliners have begun referring to Gaza as "Hamas-stan" and called for Israel cut off water and electricity to the territory and seal off all borders to imports and exports.
"It has to be defined as a hostile and dangerous entity and be treated as such, because it is," Amos Gilboa, a senior Israeli defence official told Israel Radio.
Muawiya Hassanein, head of the Emergency Department in the Ministry of Health in Gaza City, told the Daily Telegraph that hospitals in the war torn territory were short on blood, medicine and equipment because no supplies could get into the territory with all crossing closed by Israel.
It is a portent of the difficulties that lie ahead for Hamas now that it alone will rule in Gaza.