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Hamas spent months planning and preparing to take over the Gaza Strip, importing weapons from abroad and training for a confrontation that the militant group's leadership believed had become inevitable, officials in the Islamist movement said yesterday.

Hamas knew it had the upper hand in Gaza, but it worried that the balance could shift. With the United States and secular Arab states keeping up their boycott of Hamas while promising millions of dollars to build up Fatah's fighting capability, Hamas decided this week to establish itself as the only military force on the streets of Gaza.

The early stirrings of trouble began eight days ago, when a Fatah activist was shot dead in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. That was the first killing after nearly a month of calm between the two sides. News reports then surfaced that Fatah was negotiating with Israel to import anti-tank missiles, grenades and other weapons into the strip - a move clearly intended to strengthen Fatah against Hamas, though it never came to pass.

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Small-scale clashes continued until Monday, when Fatah gunmen fired on the house of prime minister Ismail Haniyeh. Mr. Haniyeh, a Hamas member, is said to have interpreted the attack as an assassination attempt, and in a subsequent phone call with Hamas's exiled leader, Khaled Meshaal, the two men decided to carry out a long-prepared plan to crush Fatah.

Once the order was given, Hamas overran one Fatah outpost after another, moving swiftly through narrow coastal territory, seizing first the north of the strip, then the centre and south. By yesterday, the movement's green flags flew over every part of Gaza, and only small pockets of resistance remained.

Observers have been stunned by the speed and ease with which Hamas routed Fatah, which was believed to have a roughly equal number of men-at-arms at the start of the fighting. But Hamas members say they aren't surprised.

"We always knew [the fight]was coming - everybody did," Islam Shahawan, a spokesman for Hamas's crack 6,000-man militia, known as the Executive Force, said in a telephone interview from Gaza. "We planned every step in great detail."

He said Hamas had not anticipated a long battle, since Fatah's fighters "are weak, and have been deteriorating in shape for a long time." He said Hamas, in contrast, was "organized and united in a single mission."

That mission, he said, was the same as ever - to fight the "Zionist occupation." Hamas only turned its weapons on Fatah when it became convinced that the secular party was plotting with the United States and Israel.

Fatah men complained that they didn't realize they were in a full-scale battle for control of Gaza until it was nearly over. Many have openly criticized the leadership of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who waited until yesterday to order his forces to join the fight. By then, it was long over in Gaza, although many believe the fighting will now spread to the West Bank.

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Hamas also struck while Mohammed Dahlan, Mr. Abbas's right-hand man on security matters, was out of Gaza for medical treatment in Egypt. His No. 2, Rashid Abu Shbak, moved to the West Bank last month after Hamas attacked his home in Gaza, leaving Fatah forces effectively leaderless in the fighting.

"We had weapons, but only Hamas had the order to kill," said Radwan al-Akhrass, a Fatah activist in Rafah. "We never expected such viciousness, such ruthlessness."

Sheik Yazeeb Khader, a Hamas newspaper editor who is now in hiding in the West Bank as Fatah steps up its retribution there, said that Hamas had learned from the success of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement.Hezbollah used a network of tunnels to smuggle weapons into position ahead of its war last summer against Israel.

"We buy weapons from every source. Everybody wonders where Hezbollah gets its weapons; same with the resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq," Mr. Khader said. "Because we are a resistance movement, we can buy weapons from the devil. We buy weapons from every source, and we buy all the weapons we can get our hands on."

Mr. Khader gave credit to the international Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, for "never being stingy" in providing financial and other aid to the Palestinian wing. Hamas also makes its own weapons, he said, including the Qassam rockets it uses to attack Israel.

In one dramatic episode of how well-planned the assault was, Hamas fighters destroyed a Fatah command post in the town of Khan Younis, by planting explosives in tunnels that had been dug under the building months beforehand, without Fatah noticing.

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Diana Buttu, a political commentator and former adviser to Mr. Abbas, said Fatah, Israel and the West greatly misjudged how Hamas would react when cornered.

"This is about deterrence. They had to strike first before they got hit. The West badly miscalculated," she said. "For Hamas this battle is existential."

Comparing regions

GAZA STRIP

Size: 360 square kilometres Countries on its borders: Israel, Egypt

Population: 1,482,405, as of July, 2007

Religions: Islam, 98.7 per cent, predominantly Sunni; Christian, 0.7 per cent; Jewish, 0.6 per cent

Labour Force: 278,000, as of April-June, 2005

Unemployment: 28.2 per cent, in the fourth quarter of 2005

GDP: $768-million (U.S.), 2003 estimate

GDP per capita: $600, 2003 estimate Population living below the poverty line: 63.1 per cent

WEST BANK

Size: 5,860 square kilometres

Countries on its border: Israel, Jordan

Population: 2,535,927, excluding Israeli settlers

Religions: Islam, 75 per cent, predominantly Sunni; Jewish, 17 per cent; Christian and other, 8 per cent

Labour Force: 614,000, as of April-June, 2005

Unemployment: 21.8 per cent, in the fourth quarter of 2005

GDP: $1.8-billion, 2003 estimate

GDP per capita: $1,100, 2003 estimate Population living below the poverty line: 45.7 per cent

Sources: CIA World Factbook, Intute-World Guide , UNCTAD, infoplease.com, Palestinian National Authority

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