Mon, Aug 15, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Battle for control of Gaza Strip begins

MEDIA PRESENCE Eager to claim credit for the Israeli withdrawal of Jewish settlements in the area, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are vying for center stage

AP , GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP

Israeli Arab Knesset Member Abdulmalik Dahamshe, center, holds a speaker as Muslims chant slogans after being stopped by Israeli police officers at one of the roads leading to Jerusalem's Old City yesterday. Security was increased around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in an effort to prevent clashes between Jews and Muslims, police said. Tens of thousands of Jews were expected to pray at the Western Wall; Jews venerate it as Judaism's holiest shrine, while Muslims revere it as the place were the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven.

PHOTO: AP

Hamas came out of hiding Saturday, holding a mass news conference for the first time in a decade and distributing the phone numbers of 34 multilingual spokesmen as a battle for control of the Gaza Strip gained steam ahead of Israel's withdrawal next week.

In this struggle between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority -- both of whom claim responsibility for Israel's evacuation of 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four West Bank enclaves -- spokesmen, Internet accessible media centers and TV availability to late-night Hamas training sessions are the weapons of choice.

For the first time since Israel began targeting Hamas' top leadership two years ago, the Islamic group surfaced, handing out phone numbers of spokesmen fluent in Arabic, English and French.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, determined to beat Hamas in the war for the airwaves, inaugurated on Saturday a special Gaza withdrawal media center, complete with live feed points for TV crews, a 24-hour SMS service for news updates, maps and free hats and T-shirts.

"The center will facilitate the media in all they need. It is ready to meet all your demands. A group of Cabinet ministers and officials will be ready at all times to answer your questions," Abbas assured the journalists gathered at the media center.

Earlier in the day, founders and top Hamas political leaders gathered on the same stage for the first time in a decade, vowing to go on fighting Israel and claiming victory for the impending withdrawal.

On Thursday, Hamas for the first time invited TV cameras to film a nighttime training session, complete with militants rappelling off high-rise walls and jumping through flaming hoops. Islamic Jihad also released Saturday training footage of militants dressed in camouflage with masked faces crawling through tunnels and under mesh-wiring while coming under live fire.

Hamas has hired the spokesmen "to take on the huge responsibility of educating the world about the importance of the withdrawal," said Mushir Masri, one of the militant group's army of spokesmen.

"The media presence is in high demand especially since the enemy has been defeated and there is no longer a security concern preventing them from appearing in public," Masri told reporters.

The Hamas leadership went underground two years ago when Israel began targeting the group's founders and top brass, including spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, both killed in missile strikes.

But recently Hamas has been openly challenging the Palestinian Authority, and even made a strong showing in West Bank and Gaza municipal elections. On Saturday, the Hamas leadership said at its news conference that Abbas' Fatah movement could not be the sole decision-making body and insisted it has the right to possess arms.

"Hamas remains committed to the choice of resistance as a strategic choice. Hamas remains committed to its military wing and its right to possess weapons," said Ismail Haniyye, a top Hamas leader.

Hamas does not plan to battle the Palestinian Authority, but "rejects the idea of allowing any single party to monopolize the decision-making process," Haniyye added.

Hamas' news conference came just a day after Abbas attended the first official Palestinian Authority celebration of Israel's upcoming withdrawal, promising his people the Gaza pullout was the first step to an independence.

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