GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Rival Palestinian fighters armed with battered machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades fought for control on Tuesday as the Gaza Strip was consumed by a pitiless wave of brutality bordering on civil war.
Masked gunmen zipped through Gaza City in open-bed trucks. Hamas militants attacked the beachside compound of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, while Fatah loyalists besieged the home of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. Mortar rounds whistled overhead before crashing into apartment buildings and neighborhoods.
Hamas militants seized at least one key Palestinian Authority military compound from Fatah forces and declared the northern Gaza Strip as their security zone.
By nightfall, more than two dozen Palestinians had been killed in a brutal new surge in factional fighting that threatens to undermine a tenuous three-month-old Palestinian unity government that was supposed to end this war of attrition.
Instead, with the latest Egyptian effort to broker a new cease-fire failing, ordinary Palestinians plotted their escape from Gaza as confidence in their leaders plummeted.
"We really don't understand where they are going," said Ali Badwan, a Gaza City management consultant who's planning to move his Mexican wife and four children to Mexico this summer to escape the fighting.
"Are they going to build a state by fighting each other?" Badwan said. "To liberate our land by fighting each other? To free the prisoners? To liberate Jerusalem? Where are they going? They are going to destroy themselves and our country."
The latest fighting renewed strains on the unity government, with Abbas suggesting that the clashes were tantamount to a coup.
In an emergency meeting, Fatah's central committee voted to suspend its participation in the unity government until the battles wind down, and it threatened to pull out entirely if the fighting continues.
Throughout the day, Hamas appeared to have the upper hand, staging well-coordinated assaults on key government compounds.
Hundreds of Hamas fighters took control of an Abbas military compound north of Gaza City, leaving at least 10 Fatah fighters dead. Hamas then waged a fight for a second Fatah stronghold to the south.
On Tuesday afternoon, an unexploded mortar round lay in the concrete courtyard of Ahmed Afifi, the Palestinian Authority intelligence deputy chief who was trapped overnight in his home near the Mediterranean coast by a ceaseless battle.
"Our revolution during the past 42 years has almost been ruined by the latest clashes," Afifi said he sat near his Israeli-made pistol in a darkened room with armed bodyguards.
Tuesday's fighting marked another twist in a devolving spiral of brutality that has seen more than 35 Palestinians killed in the past week, often in horrific ways.
On Sunday, Hamas militants swept up Mohammed Suwarki, a 28-year-old government supply clerk, blindfolded him, bound him with belts and flung him from an 18-story high rise.
"We hope that they will keep on inventing new ways of killing people so that people who believe Hamas' lies will know the reality," said Suwarki's older brother, Rami.
Palestinians across Gaza are losing faith in the ability of either Abbas or Haniyeh to broker a lasting truce. The rival leaders tried to end the Gaza fighting in February when they signed a landmark deal in the holy Islamic city of Mecca to create a coalition Hamas-Fatah government.
The agreement, brokered by Saudi Arabia King Abdullah, brought a temporary halt to the fighting, but little more.
The United States and other key players refused to restore normal relations with the Palestinian Authority because Hamas refuses to explicitly abandon its vow to destroy Israel.
That has left the Palestinian Authority with little money to offer social services, pay its workers or build the foundation for a Palestinian state.
In the meantime, Hamas has used a network of underground tunnels between Gaza and Egypt to smuggle in more weapons, which have given the well-trained Islamist fighters an edge in the battles.
Abbas and Fatah forces have long complained that they need Israel and the international community to approve a new influx of advanced weaponry so they can compete with Hamas.
The Hamas victories in the fighting are likely to increase concerns that Fatah is in danger of collapse.
"There is no doubt that there is a huge development in their military capabilities," Afifi said.
Afifi said that the request for more military firepower is awaiting approval from Israel.
"We need to explain to the international community that the sanctions only affected members of the security forces," Afifi said. "Hamas wasn't affected."