GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — As they gave up compound after compound to advancing Hamas forces, weary Fatah fighters loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas fell back toward the seaside presidential compound in Gaza to make their last stand.
They set up .50-caliber machine guns and unloaded crates of ammunition, certain that it would be their last stand.
"This is all there is for us,” said a special forces officer who called himself Abu Hassan as he oversaw the stacking of ammunition. “We will not surrender. They will execute us."
But there was no last stand. Instead, Fatah leaders fled the Gaza Strip by boat and on foot, leaving lower-level fighters feeling betrayed.
In five days of fighting, Fatah never put up a real fight. The question is why not.
In interviews with McClatchy Newspapers during and after the fighting, Fatah foot soldiers said they felt abandoned as they realized that there'd be no counterattack, not even a last-ditch defense.
Some of them thought incompetent political leaders had done them in. But this land has long been fertile soil for conspiracy theories, and others wondered whether Abbas had deliberately ceded the Gaza Strip to Hamas in an attempt to isolate the radical Islamic group and consolidate his power in the much larger West Bank.
"There was total frustration and disappointment," said one Abbas security officer who was among the last to abandon the presidential compound on Thursday night, June 14, and asked to be identified only as A.R. because of fear of retaliation. "We felt like there was a conspiracy to hand over Gaza to Hamas."
Whether it was conspiracy or collapse, Fatah's downfall in Gaza has created an unexpected opportunity for Israel, the United States and others to re-establish full relations with Abbas and the pro-Western emergency cabinet he's installed to replace the elected, Hamas-dominated Palestinian government.
The outside world has moved quickly to bolster Abbas. The United States announced that it would lift the financial embargo that had starved the Palestinian Authority since Hamas won elections in January 2006. Israel agreed to release Palestinian tax revenue it's impounded.
But the story of Fatah’s final hours in Gaza is a reminder of how tenuous Abbas’ position may be. If he becomes too cozy with Israel, he can be accused of betraying the Palestinian cause. Angry Fatah fighters could view their sense of betrayal as reason to turn on Abbas, or at least temper their support for him.
And the rout could be repeated if Fatah's weaknesses that were so apparent in Gaza are duplicated in the West Bank.
Fatah has long been on the defensive, accused of incompetence, inattention and corruption. Disciplined Hamas forces were fighting for a cause in Gaza; Fatah gunmen were mostly fighting for regular paychecks that stopped coming last year when Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority.
"I know why Fatah didn't fight back," said Diana Buttu, a former aide to Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan, the longtime Fatah security chief in Gaza who was nowhere to be found there during the final showdown.
"They haven't been paid salaries in a year-and-a-half, they don't know what they are defending any more, they're defending an authority that was destroyed ages ago," said Buttu. "I understand them, and I don't blame them."
Fatah’s fighters in Gaza were members of Abbas’ presidential guard, supposedly the Palestinian Authority’s elite. They’d vowed to give their lives to defend Abbas and his secular and conciliatory strategies.
By Thursday afternoon, there was a strong sense among the embattled soldiers that they were bracing for a final standoff. Hamas had taken position after position, including Fatah's security headquarters and its intelligence offices. Fatah gunmen retreated to the protected presidential compound overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
They were tense and anxious. They traded stories about Hamas executing Fatah fighters and using innocent women as human shields. Dazed fighters with bloody bandages stood nearby.
As he smoked cigarettes and watched the preparations, Abu Hassan said that he and his men would repel Hamas or die trying. He boasted that there were more than 3,000 fighters ready to defend the compound. If so, they were well hidden.
Gen. Khildoun Hijou emerged from a Jeep in his olive green uniform and tried to give the young soldiers a pep talk.
"Be strong," he said.
A 22-year-old member of the presidential guard who asked to be identified only as Hatem recalled bitterly that he and other fighters had been sent to the security headquarters to rescue their Fatah colleagues with promises of support from an armored personnel carrier.
The help never came. Hatem and others were captured. His Hamas captors ordered him to run, then shot him at him as he fled, hitting him in the neck. He lay bleeding in the street with three other fighters until a man on a donkey cart hauled them to a nearby hospital.
Of the 30 men sent on the mission, Hatem said, only four survived.
As the last Fatah strongholds fell, gun battles blazed in the streets. Fatah fighters in the presidential stronghold staged hit-and-run missions to keep Hamas at bay.
Inside, frantic mothers arrived in cars and spirited their young sons away from the fighting. At best, there were 1,000 soldiers left inside.
Among them was Abu Mohammed, a 26-year-old presidential guard who complained that Fatah leaders waited too long to mount an effective counter-assault.
"In the beginning of the clashes, whenever anyone wanted to shoot, they got two or three clips at the most," said Abu Mohammed. "When we asked for more, they said they didn't have any. They only brought out the weapons very late because the rest of the soldiers had run away."
As the sun set over the Mediterranean, the forces in the presidential compound had dwindled to about 300 elite holdouts. Fatah leaders told them they were going to escape. Some commandeered fishing boats from the nearby port and fled south to Egypt. Others quietly snuck down the beach.
With the top leadership on the run, more soldiers laid down their weapons and fled.
One of the last to leave was Morad, a 23-year-old police officer who said the Fatah forces would have fought to the death if they’d been given the training, weapons and support the United States had long promised, but never fully provided.
"There was a political game and we paid the price for it," said Morad. "We were betrayed by Fatah and the Palestinian Authority."
By 10 p.m., the shooting had died down. Civilians started returning to the streets. Celebratory Hamas gunfire replaced the sounds of battle. As Hamas fighters took control of the presidential office, the last Fatah fighters melted into the darkness.
Now, most are in hiding as they wait to see what Hamas rule in Gaza will mean for Fatah members.
"It's a nightmare," said Mohammed, whose presidential guard brother is in hiding. "They didn't believe until now this was happening. This is a nightmare. They feel that they are cowards."