Dozens of Fatah officials summoned to an emergency meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Tuesday night walked out of the Mukata presidential compound with the impression that their party was about to return to power. The meeting was called in the wake of Israel's military strikes in the Gaza Strip and the massive crackdown on Hamas. Abbas, according to some of the participants, briefed them on the latest political and security developments and asked them to be prepared for the "next phase." At the meeting, Abbas made it clear that Fatah would soon "resume its role as the defender of the Palestinian national interests" to fill the vacuum created by the Israeli crackdown on the Hamas government and its representatives. When Abbas talks about the "next phase," he is clearly referring to the post-Hamas era. He and his aides are certain that the time is ripe to overthrow the Hamas regime under the pretext that its presence in power is harmful to the Palestinians' national interests. With eight of its members imprisoned in Israel and the rest in hiding, the six-month-old Hamas government of Ismail Haniyeh has effectively been paralyzed. None of the Hamas ministers in the Gaza Strip has been seen in his office since the abduction of IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit nearly three weeks ago. The ministries are now run by bureaucrats, most of whom belong to Fatah. The Hamas-dominated parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, has also been hit hard with the arrest of over 20 of its members in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Over the past three weeks, the Hamas cabinet has been holding its weekly meetings at secret locations in Gaza City. Haniyeh and his ministers are no longer sleeping at their homes and their public appearances have been reduced dramatically. For the Hamas leaders, the honeymoon which began earlier this year with their victory in the parliamentary election is nearing its end. Haniyeh and his foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar, don't even have offices to sit in - the Israeli Air Force has destroyed the prime minister's office and the foreign ministry office in Gaza City. The campaign against Hamas has been accompanied by concerted international community efforts to empower Abbas and Fatah. While the coffers of the Palestinian finance ministry are empty, Abbas's office continues to receive tens of millions of dollars from various countries and sources. Some of the money is being used to boost those security forces still loyal to Abbas and Fatah. But large sums are also finding their way into the hands of Fatah militias like the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, whose members in the Gaza Strip are also responsible for rocket attacks on Israel. In recent days, Fatah gunmen in the West Bank, with the help of Islamic Jihad activists, have twice tried to launch rockets at Israel. According to Palestinian security sources, the rockets were supposed to be fired from Tulkarm and Jenin. The sources claimed that Palestinian policemen foiled the attempts in the last minute. THE KIDNAPPING of Shalit by Hamas has put Fatah in a difficult position. Public opinion polls show that a massive majority of Palestinians supports the abduction. And if Hamas manages to trade the soldier even for a small number of Palestinian prisoners, its popularity on the Palestinian street will be further boosted - at Fatah's expense, of course. That's why Fatah leaders have avoided any form of criticism against Hamas over the kidnapping of Shalit. On the contrary, Fatah spokesmen, including some of Abbas's closest aides, have been heaping praise on Hamas's military wing, describing the abduction as a legitimate attack against a military target. Now that Hamas is taking credit alone for dispatching its men to fight against IDF soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip, Fatah is trying to follow suit. Earlier this week, Fatah's armed wing announced the establishment of a special unit for female suicide bombers to strike inside Israel. A spokeswoman for the group in Gaza City said that so far over 100 women had joined the new Fatah unit. Even Hamas and Islamic Jihad never had such units for women. As far as Abbas is concerned, the top priority is to bring down the Hamas government and return Fatah to power. To achieve his goal, he is even prepared to allow his soldiers on the ground to imitate Hamas with the hope of scoring points on the Palestinian street. No wonder, then, that some of the Fatah-affiliated media outlets have begun referring to Sderot and Ashkelon as "settlements."