Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday accused Hamas of staging a "bloody coup" to try and take full control of the Gaza Strip.
His allegations came as thousands of Hamas militiamen launched a full-scale attack on Fatah figures and institutions in most parts of the Gaza Strip. Hamas fighters captured the headquarters of the Fatah-backed security forces in the northern part of the Strip.
Twenty-one people were killed in this battle, which involved hundreds of fighters from both sides.
At least 28 Palestinians were killed in Tuesday's clashes throughout the Strip, including some senior members of Hamas and Fatah. Sources in the Gaza Strip said most of the casualties were Fatah activists and members of the Palestinian security forces.
The Fatah central committee, meeting in emergency session in Ramallah Tuesday night, decided to suspend participation in the national unity government until the fighting stops.
"The hospitals are full of bodies," said Ahraf Abu Baker, a nurse at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. "We are running short of blood and we have appealed for donations. We have wounded people arriving every minute."
PA officials here told The Jerusalem Post that the Hamas offensive was the biggest one by the group in the Gaza Strip thus far.
"Hamas has declared war on Fatah and the Palestinian Authority," said one official. "The rules of the game have changed and we will have to act in accordance with the new threat."
Another PA official expressed deep concern over Hamas's success in taking control of several Palestinian security installations. He revealed that Hamas managed to lay its hands on large amounts of weapons belonging to the Fatah-controlled security forces in many parts of the Gaza Strip.
"They have seized thousands of rifles, large amounts of ammunition and dozens of vehicles, including armored jeeps," he said. "This is really bad news for all."
Abbas told Fatah leaders during an emergency meeting in Ramallah that "political and security" leaders of Hamas were determined to take control of the Gaza Strip by force.
"Hamas is mistaken if it thinks that it can take control of the Gaza Strip through violent means," he said. "We are witnessing the first signs of a cruel civil war."
Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Fatah operative in the West Bank, urged Abbas to dissolve the Palestinian Authority and call early elections.
"It is inconceivable that our authority become a nightmare for our people," he said. "Hamas is currently launching a coup against the Palestinian Authority and all the Palestinian factions. External parties are also involved in this scheme, because they want to kill our dream of statehood and freedom."
Hamas legislator Salah Bardaweel said his movement was determined to win the battle against Fatah.
"We have decided to fight to the end," he stressed. "We are determined to eliminate those elements in Fatah that have been killing and torturing our men."
Bardaweel described Fatah as a Lahad Army, referring to the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army under Antoine Lahad.
"We have decided to clean the country from these ferocious dogs who have long been serving their Israeli masters," he said. "This is a final decision and we won't backtrack."
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, dismissed allegations that his movement was trying to stage a coup against Abbas as "lies."
"Hamas won the parliamentary elections and formed a legitimate government," he said. "Fatah is the one that is conspiring against the legitimate government with the help of the US, which is providing them with weapons and millions of dollars."
Fatah officials admitted that Hamas was now in control of the entire northern part of the Gaza Strip following a series of attacks on Fatah figures and PA security installations over the past three days. Hamas's armed wing, Izaddin Kassam, declared the northern Gaza Strip a "closed military zone" and warned PA security personnel against entering the area.
Hamas militiamen also stepped up their attacks on the homes of Fatah leaders in different parts of the Gaza Strip. Sources close to the movement said Hamas militiamen have received orders to kill some 30 top Fatah officials who are allegedly involved in a US-backed plot to remove Hamas from power.
About 200 Hamas militiamen raided the home of former PA foreign minister Nabil Sha'ath in the Sudaniyeh neighborhood of Gaza City and shot one of his bodyguards in the legs.
Sha'ath, a senior Fatah operative, was not at home during the attack. Hamas militiamen also detonated a 120 kg. explosive charge outside a building where Maher Miqdad, a senior Fatah official, lives in Gaza City.
Miqdad, who has escaped several attempts on his life over the past few weeks, was not hurt.
Local journalists told the Post that at least 60 houses belonging to Fatah and Hamas officials have been severely damaged in the fighting since last Saturday.
Earlier, Hamas accused Abbas's Presidential Guard of firing rocket-propelled grenades at the home of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in the Shati refugee camp. Haniyeh and members of his family were at home during the attack, but no one was hurt.
In response, Hamas launched a massive attack on Abbas's headquarters in Gaza City, using various types of weapons.
At least four of Abbas's security officers were killed.
The fighting later spread to Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, where the bullet-riddled body of Nabhan Rantisi, a 20-year-old Hamas member, was discovered. In response, Hamas occupied several PA security and civilian institutions in the town.
"The streets of the Gaza Strip are full of hundreds of gunmen belonging to Fatah and Hamas," said Ayman Abu Sharkh, a lawyer from Gaza City. "People are afraid to leave their homes, because this is a real war and they are killing each other mercilessly. We never imagined that the day would come when we would see Palestinians slaughtering each other in the streets." â€¢