HAMAS militiamen yesterday imposed a siege on the stronghold of the large Gaza family holding the kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston, taking up rooftop positions and monitoring those entering and exiting its enclave.
Locals said members of Hamas's executive force had arrived at 5:30am and took control of sites overlooking the area inhabited by the Doghmush family, which runs the Army of Islam group.
It has taken responsibility for abducting 45-year old Mr Johnston, who has been in captivity for 113 days.
Tension was palpable, and some families, worried about being caught in possible crossfire between Hamas and the Doghmush, fled from their apartments, according to local residents.
It was unclear whether the deployment of forces presaged the storming of the compound, in the Sabra neighbourhood of Gaza City, or if it was a further tactic to pressure the Doghmush family into releasing Mr Johnston, who was the only western reporter to continue living in and reporting from Gaza after previous kidnappings of journalists.
The family includes thousands of members, not all of whom support the actions of Momtaz Doghmush, the head of the Army of Islam. Some family leaders have come out against the Johnston kidnapping, the longest ever abduction of a foreign journalist in Gaza.
Hamas, which runs the government in Gaza, has become even more isolated internationally after last month's seizure of security installations in the Strip from the Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. Freeing Mr Johnston could help its image abroad and assist it in its rivalry with the Fatah-allied emergency government based in the West Bank.
Tensions between the two governments have increased further in the run-up to today's first payment of government salaries by the West Bank cabinet. Drawing on tax money released to it, but not to the Hamas government, by Israel, the emergency cabinet will issue the first full pay cheques in more than a year and a half to about 140,000 employees of the Palestinian Authority, including tens of thousands in Gaza.
But thousands of workers hired by Hamas, and others who obey the orders of the Islamic movement, are to be excluded from the payroll. Mosque preachers in Gaza have decreed that workers there who have stopped going to their jobs out of loyalty to Fatah and will take money today are "accomplices to a crime".
West Bank officials are bracing themselves for possible attempts by Hamas to disrupt payments at banks in Gaza. Ismail Haniya, the leader of the Hamas government, yesterday termed the exclusion of workers from the payroll "a violation of basic human rights".
Referring to Mr Johnston, a Hamas spokesman said his group "will not spare any efforts to free the British journalist." A Hamas radio station also broadcast a free telephone number and urged listeners to call in with information about the case.
In Gaza City, a Hamas banner hung in recent days near the al-Dira Hotel, once a favourite of foreign journalists, proclaims "No more threats for our foreign visitors and guests".
The leaders of Hamas have said they are wary of using force to try to free Mr Johnston because his abductors could follow up on their threats to kill him if a rescue is attempted. The Army of Islam recently released a video of the BBC man with what appeared to be an explosives belt strapped to his chest.
Meanwhile, the Doghmush clan are said to be worried that Hamas will disarm and possibly crush them as soon as they surrender Mr Johnston.
On Monday, Hamas forces arrested an Army of Islam leader and his driver in Gaza City, and the group responded by kidnapping nine university students who were Hamas supporters. Hamas forces then arrested 15 members of the Doghmush family.