The power struggle between Fatah and Hamas escalated Saturday following Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's decision to outlaw Hamas's "Executive Force" in the Gaza Strip.
Sources close to Abbas said he was planning to appoint senior Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan as overall commander of the PA's security forces. The appointment will be part of sweeping changes that will affect as many as 150 incumbent security commanders, the sources added, noting that Abbas was very disappointed with the failure of the forces to impose law and order.
Defiant Hamas spokesmen responded by announcing that the Executive Force's personnel would be doubled - from 6,000 to 12,000.
Hamas also accused Abbas and his Fatah party of conducting a massive operation designed to bring down the Hamas-led government.
An Israeli government source said Abbas's decision to outlaw the Executive Force was an important step.
It's a sign he is "taking responsibility" and trying to exert his authority, the source said, adding that Israel was hopeful Abbas would succeed in wresting control of the PA from Hamas.
Three Palestinians were killed in clashes between the two parties in different parts of Gaza City Saturday evening, local journalists said.
One of the victims was identified as Abu Raed al-Diri, 50, the mukhtar of a large clan.
Six Hamas members were kidnapped by Fatah gunmen - two in the West Bank and four in the Gaza Strip. The home of a Hamas legislator in the Strip was set on fire and several Hamas-run institutions were ransacked over the weekend.
The latest flare-up comes despite an agreement reached early Friday between Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas to end the fighting and withdraw all militiamen from the streets of the Gaza Strip. The agreement followed three days of clashes between Fatah and Hamas supporters in which at least 20 people were killed and dozens were wounded.
Abbas said his decision to outlaw the Executive Force, which was established several months ago by Interior Minister Said Siam of Hamas, came in the wake of the growing state of anarchy and lawlessness and the killing of a top PA security commander in the Gaza Strip on Thursday.
Abbas's decision also followed Friday's assassination of Sheikh Adel Nassar, a prominent Islamic scholar in the Gaza Strip who is affiliated with Fatah. Nassar was gunned down shorty after delivering a sermon in the Maghazi refugee camp appealing for calm and expressing regret over the continued fighting between Fatah and Hamas.
Abbas said all Executive Force members would be banned from operating in the Gaza Strip unless they agreed to join the Fatah-controlled PA security forces.
Khaled Abu Hilal, spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, condemned the decision as "hasty" and warned Hamas would take "firm" action against anyone who tried to harm the force.
Islam Shahwan, spokesman for the Executive Force, announced it would be expanded to include an additional 5,500 officers. The decision, he added, was taken at the request of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to help restore law and order.
Shahwan dismissed as "malicious rumors" allegations that the Executive Force was responsible for the anarchy. "This is a very disciplined force that has not taken part in the chaos, killings and abductions," he said. "On the contrary, we are fighting anarchy and lawlessness."
Fatah leaders condemned the decision to expand the force as an attempt to increase the number of killings on the Palestinian street. "The decision to increase the force's membership, who are operating as death squads, is a new challenge from the Hamas government to President Mahmoud Abbas," said a statement issued by Fatah.
The statement also voiced full support for Abbas's decision to outlaw the Hamas force.
The tensions spread on Saturday to the West Bank, where Fatah gunmen kidnapped the deputy mayor of Nablus, Mahdi al-Hanbali, who is affiliated with Hamas.
In Ramallah, Fatah gunmen kidnapped Ihab Suleiman, the director of Siam's Interior Ministry office. Suleiman was released an hour later after having been shot in the legs.
Late on Friday, the offices of Hamas legislators in the city were set on fire. Legislator Salah Bardaweel blamed Fatah gunmen for the attacks. "Certain elements in Fatah are trying to topple the Hamas government," he said. "They are actually serving the interests of Israel."
A Hamas charity in Nablus was also torched by Fatah gunmen, eyewitnesses reported.
In Gaza City, four Hamas men were kidnapped at gunpoint while they were standing on the city's Mughrabi Street.
Sources in the city said the kidnappers belonged to a local clan that was seeking revenge for the killing of two of its members by Hamas activists two weeks ago.
In the northern Gaza Strip, assailants set fire to the home of Hamas legislator Yussef al-Sharafi. PA security sources said the attack was carried out by relatives of Gen. Muhammad Gharib, a top PA Preventive Security Force officer who was killed by Hamas along with his two daughters and two bodyguards at his home on Thursday.
Gharib's family denied responsibility for the attack on Sharafi's home, saying it was carried out by "children and friends" of the victim.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.â€¢