GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Jubilant Hamas fighters took control of the Gaza Strip on Thursday, raising their Islamist party's green flag over conquered government strongholds and forcing their routed Fatah rivals into a last redoubt, where they prepared to make a final stand or negotiate surrender.
"We are telling our people that the past era has ended and will not return," Hamas spokesman Islam Shahwan triumphantly told Hamas Radio. "The era of justice and Islamic rule has arrived."
After hours of frenetic fighting, an eerie calm returned to Gaza City early Friday morning. The shooting came to an abrupt halt, and residents cautiously ventured back out into the streets.
The swift defeat was a startling reversal for Fatah, the secular party that has dominated Palestinian politics since its founding nearly 50 years ago. Hamas' victory propelled Palestinians into an uncertain new era in which their hopes of establishing an independent state are once again fractured.
It also created a quandary for the United States and Israel, which have sought to isolate the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority because it refuses to renounce its pledge to destroy Israel.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah's leading figure, dissolved the Hamas-led unity government in a last-ditch attempt to assert his authority. But with no security force capable of implementing the president's order in the Gaza Strip, the decision was likely to have little impact.
Hamas leaders dismissed the president's directive to fire Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh as unconstitutional.
Hamas fighters quickly vanquished Fatah forces at every turn on Thursday. Throughout the day, black smoke from charred buildings drifted over deserted streets as convoys of militants raced from battle to battle. Huge explosions shook windows, rocket-propelled grenades whistled overhead and red tracer rounds zipped past high-rise apartment buildings as the evening call to prayer echoed through the city.
Local fishermen reported that Fatah officials had commandeered their boats and sought to escape by sea to Egypt. One hated Fatah figure was dragged into the street and brutally shot before being swarmed by an angry mob.
By nightfall, Hamas had raised its green flag over three of the four remaining Fatah strongholds in Gaza City — the preventive security compound, the military intelligence headquarters and another intelligence office in the city center.
Only the presidential compound on the Mediterranean coast remained in Fatah hands, and the surviving Abbas forces retreated there.
Jittery government fighters with .50-caliber machine guns mounted on the back of pickup trucks moved into the surrounding neighborhood as others unloaded boxes of ammunition.
The Hamas triumph should give the hard-line Islamist movement broad freedom to impose its conservative religious values on the 1.4 million Gaza Strip residents. "What will happen in Gaza is an Islamic state will be established," said Ayman Shaheen, a political analyst at Al Azar University in Gaza City.
But Abbas and his secular party still dominate the West Bank, which is home to almost twice as many Palestinians.
Israeli officials have said in recent days that they aren't counting Palestinian moderates out and that they can still work with Abbas.
But Abbas' inaction during the crisis drew sharp criticism from some supporters who blamed him for letting the dispute with Hamas metastasize into a civil war.
"I think his actions have been cowardly," said former Abbas aide Diana Buttu. "His lack of decision is what's fueled all of this. He's been acting more like the prime minister of Sweden."
Nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed since the fighting broke out on Sunday.
Thursday's battles were the culmination of a months-long internal Palestinian struggle for political and military supremacy that began in January 2005 when Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority in historic legislative elections.
Since then, the international community has shunned the Hamas-led government, and the political and economic blockade crippled the government. Abbas and Hamas established their coalition government earlier this year in an unsuccessful attempt to end the factional fighting and break the international economic boycott.
On Thursday, Fatah soldiers wounded in the day's battles stood listlessly in doorways near the presidential compound as their colleagues warned residents in the surrounding buildings to flee.
Elderly women and grandfathers with canes shuffled down the trash-strewn streets. As fighters unloaded ammunition, Abed Habib anxiously urged an ailing relative to get into the family's beat-up Subaru hatchback, already stuffed with clothes and nine other relatives.
Standing in the door of an apartment building nearby, a special forces officer who gave his name only as Abu Hassan said his forces would never surrender to Hamas forces, which executed Fatah figures during the recent battles.
"They have no respect for human beings," said the 30-year-old father of two, who was dressed in camouflage pants and a purple Palestinian Communication Services Company cap. "The only thing for us is to fight to the death."
Abu Hassan was among the forces that rushed to the preventive security offices in a failed attempt to repel the Hamas attack. After the battle, Abu Hassan said Islamist fighters brutally slashed the necks of two captives.
When asked why government forces hadn't done more to launch a counter-assault, Abu Hassan said Hamas had mounted a successful guerrilla campaign.
"Hamas has no bases we can attack," he said. "They are in houses and in the streets. We try to run after them and they hide among the civilians. This is our weakness."
With Hamas closing in, Fatah leaders tried to keep the spirits of the last holdouts high by visiting the troops. Abu Hassan said Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, who left the Gaza Strip last month for knee surgery in Cairo, Egypt, had stopped by around midnight Thursday.
Another top general with a pistol strapped to his side and a machine gun slung around his neck came by in the afternoon, trying to reassure the fighters with the special unit known as Force 17.
Throughout the day, the young men listened to Fatah's "Freedom Radio" station, which delivered inaccurate reports of Fatah victories in between patriotic songs.
"For all of our brothers in Force 17, in civil defense, in national security: Stay strong," an announcer said in the afternoon after the preventive security compound fell. "We are all together. Fatah will never collapse."
By sundown, Freedom Radio was off the air, replaced by static.