The attack on the IDF post near the Gaza Strip border was carried out on instructions from the Hamas leadership in Syria, Fatah officials claimed on Sunday.
They said the attack, in which two IDF soldiers were killed and one captured and brought into the Gaza Strip, was designed to torpedo any agreement between Fatah and Hamas on a controversial document drafted by some Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
As news of the capture spread in the early hours of the morning, many residents of the Strip took to the streets to express their joy. Drivers honked their horns and some merchants and gunmen distributed sweets. Many expressed hope that the abduction would lead to a prisoner swap with Israel.
The attack came only hours after sources in Gaza City reported that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh were close to reaching an agreement on the document, which had been dismissed by Hamas because it calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state only in the territories captured by Israel in 1967.
The two sides were also close to striking a deal on the formation of a new government that would be dominated by independent figures and technocrats, the sources said.
The Fatah officials accused Damscus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal of seeking to sabotage any agreement between Fatah and Hamas.
"It's obvious that those behind the attack wanted to destroy any chance of reaching an agreement between Fatah and Hamas," said a senior Fatah official. "We are convinced that the Hamas leadership in Syria and Lebanon was behind it. They want to prevent any agreement."
Another Fatah official and close aide to Abbas told The Jerusalem Post that the attack was aimed at embarrassing both Abbas and Haniyeh.
"This attack is bad for both of them," he said. "Abbas has been working very hard to reach understandings with Hamas, while Haniyeh does not want an escalation because he wants his government to remain in power."
Abbas was reported by his aides to be furious with Hamas for launching the attack on the IDF post. His office issued a statement condemning the attack as a "violation of the national consensus." The statement pointed out that the attack came just as Fatah and Hamas were about to reach understandings on calming the situation and ending rocket attacks on Israel.
"We have been holding talks in a positive atmosphere to agree on the continuation of the truce and halting all military attacks on Israel because we didn't want to give Israel an excuse to launch a massive military operation into the Gaza Strip," it said.
Abbas decided to form a commission of inquiry to determine the identity of the party responsible for the attack and phoned a number of Arab leaders to urge them to intervene to prevent Israel from invading the Gaza Strip.
Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, said the attack "brings the Palestinians back to square one." He too expressed fear that Israel would exploit the attack to step up its military operations.
In a sign of renewed tensions between the two parties, Hamas leaders immediately dismissed Abbas's denunciation of the attack. Salah Bardaweel, a Hamas legislator from the Gaza Strip, told the Post, "Our national program openly calls for pursuing the resistance against the occupation by all means. We were surprised to hear about the formation of a commission of inquiry. Who are they going to investigate - the heroes who are defending the Palestinians or the Zionist murderers who are killing our children?"
Sami Abu Zuhri, a prominent Hamas spokesman, hailed the attack as "a natural response to the Israeli occupation crimes. This attack is a response to the Israeli daily crimes committed against the Palestinian people and against the killing of children and pregnant women in the past two weeks in the Gaza Strip."
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, most of Hamas's top leaders in the Gaza Strip went underground for fear of being targeted by the IDF. Sources close to Hamas said Haniyeh and Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar were advised to keep a low profile.
According to the sources, the political leadership of Hamas was also surprised by the attack. "Those who planned and carried out the attack did not consult with the political leadership of Hamas in the Gaza Strip," the sources claimed. "The attack places Prime Minister Haniyeh in a very difficult situation."
Other Hamas sources said although the movement's military wing had claimed responsibility for the attack, there were indications that members of other groups, including Fatah, had participated in the raid. In addition to Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committees and the hitherto unknown Islamic Army group took credit for the attack. The first group is known to include many disgruntled Fatah militiamen, while the second one is believed to be linked to Islamic Jihad.
Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas government, appealed to the abductors to keep the soldier alive. "The occupation army says there is a kidnapped soldier," he told reporters in Gaza City. "We have not received an official response from the factions of the resistance, but if this is true, then we call on the factions to protect the soldier. If the Palestinian factions are indeed holding the kidnapped soldier, we call on them to treat him well and not harm him."
Hamad called on Israel to refrain from carrying out attacks. "The Palestinian government is following the matter closely and is holding talks with the Palestinian presidency, with Egypt and other elements in a bid to resolve the issue," he said.â€¢