GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — An uncertain new era of fractured Palestinian rule began Friday as Hamas forces celebrated their decisive military victory over vanquished Fatah rivals with a mix of pillaging and mercy.
Curious Hamas militants took turns playing with a fixed, but empty, anti-aircraft position outside the ransacked Gaza City office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah's leading figure. Nearby, armed militants fought over who should cart away one of the last television sets from the president's office.
Behind them on the Mediterranean coast, a young Palestinian used a construction front-loader to remove a police motorcycle from the compound.
By days' end, Palestinians were faced with the confusing situation of having of two prime ministers — one in Gaza, the other in the West Bank — looking to run dueling governments.
In the West Bank, Abbas sought to marginalize his Islamist rivals by establishing an emergency Cabinet, led by pro-Western former finance minister Salam Fayyad, to replace the three-month-old Hamas-led unity government.
But Hamas leaders in Gaza City rejected the president's decree. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said he would remain as prime minister, and with Hamas firmly in control, there was no reason to doubt him.
After working for a year to undermine the democratically elected Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, Israel and the United States indicated that they would back Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and his move to establish an emergency government.
"The extremists need to be sidelined and, in this case, Abu Mazen's action of firing Ismail Haniyeh we see as a positive step of trying to take over responsibility and authority," said Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
If the new government is Hamas-free, Israel will consider resuming full diplomatic relations and restoring the flow of tax money to the Palestinian Authority, which it cut off when the Islamist party took control 15 months ago.
"It makes it easier for us in our way to cooperate and say, 'Look, moderates, if you stand up against extremists, then at least we on our side can talk about a two-state solution,'" Eisin said.
But no one is sure how to deal with the fact that Hamas now controls the Gaza Strip, one of the world's most densely populated regions with more than 1.4 million residents in less than 140 square miles.
Some speculated that Israel and the United States would treat the West Bank, with secular Fatah still in control, and Hamas-controlled Gaza as two separate entities and would move toward using the West Bank as the foundation for diplomatic efforts to establish a Palestinian state.
That issue is likely to be central to discussions Olmert will have in Washington this coming week with President Bush.
Secular Muslims worried that the now-unfettered Hamas regime would force adherence to Islamist practices, something at least some of the Hamas fighters seemed to favor.
"Islam is spreading over Gaza, which will be the first place that Islam will invade," said a 24-year-old militant who gave his name only as Abu Suhaib as he stood next to the metal gun frame. "God willing, this will bring us much closer not to a Palestinian state, but to an Islamic state."
As its members boasted of implementing Islamic rule, Hamas leaders tried to present a conciliatory face.
Hamas fighters rounded up nearly a dozen Fatah leaders, but quickly announced that they would grant them amnesty and set them free.
"When we take over we will offer mercy and not take revenge," said a masked leader of the Hamas military wing known as Abu Obaideh, who appeared at a sidewalk news conference in Gaza City surrounded by armed militants.
Abu Obaideh told reporters that Hamas would grant mercy to captured Fatah figures reviled for their treatment of Islamist dissidents and ensure that international groups and workers were protected.
Abu Obaideh also called for the immediate release of BBC Gaza City correspondent Alan Johnston, who has been held by kidnappers for more than three months.
The pledges of mercy and law and order came as Hamas followers looted and burned key Fatah homes and buildings.
Hundreds of Palestinians stood on the beach as swirls of black smoke rose from a row of ocean-view villas owned by prominent Fatah figures.
Hamas militants stood guard over abandoned Fatah armored personnel carriers and dashed away with coveted ammunition and weapons.
Masked Hamas militants picked through the ravaged presidential compound, and residents loaded cars, flatbed trucks and donkey carts with office chairs, televisions, batteries and anything else they could scavenge.
Shattered and torn pictures of Abbas lay on the ground as photographs of revered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were propped up on chairs.
Shattered porcelain plates littered the dining room, and half-filled cups of coffee sat on abandoned desks.
Across town, scores of young men flooded into the abandoned home of Mohammed Dahlan, the reviled Fatah leader blamed for fanning the flames of discontent between the rival parties.
In a scene reminiscent of the Palestinian scavenging of Jewish settlements after Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in late 2005, men and boys stripped Dahlan's home to its frame. Boys tossed clay tiles from the roof and set the wood ceiling ablaze. Groups of men tore electrical coils from the walls as others dug up 25-foot-tall palm trees.
Among those digging up trees in the courtyard was Abu Jandal, a 25-year-old member of Islamic Jihad. He conceded that the Hamas victory was a setback for their hopes of a Palestinian state.
"It makes it farther away," said Abu Jandal. "But, step by step. This was a way to cleanse the state for the future."