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Kidnappings in gaza challenges palestinian authority { July 17 2004 }

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July 17, 2004
Rash of Kidnappings in Gaza Challenges the Authority of the Palestinian Government

JERUSALEM, Saturday, July 17 - Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip staged three kidnappings on Friday, seizing four French aid workers and two Palestinian security officials, including the police chief of Gaza, Palestinians said.

By early Saturday, the French captives - two women and two men - were released, but one Palestinian security official was still being held, Palestinian officials said.

The rash of abductions reflected the rampant lawlessness and the internal Palestinian feuding in the Gaza Strip and was seen as a challenge to the authority of Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, called an emergency cabinet meeting for Saturday, fueling speculation that his government might resign or be forced out because of the latest crisis.

The Palestinian Authority declared a state of emergency on Saturday to cope with the widening crisis, The Associated Press reported. The declaration called for increased protection around Palestinian government facilities and canceled all leave for security officials.

Two Palestinian security chiefs in Gaza submitted their resignations on Friday, citing the deterioration of law and order, but it was not immediately clear whether Mr. Arafat would accept their decisions to quit.

The French aid workers were seized Friday night while drinking coffee at a restaurant in the southern town of Khan Yunis. Responsibility for their abduction was claimed by the Abu al-Rish Brigades, a small faction loosely linked to Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement, according to Palestinian security officials.

The kidnappers took their hostages to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society offices in the town and released the two women after about three hours, and freed the two men shortly afterward, the French Foreign Ministry told Agence France-Presse. The kidnappers appear to be demanding positions in the Palestinian security forces, the security officials said.

In a separate incident, the Abu al-Rish kidnappers seized a Palestinian security official, Khaled Abu Alula, also in Khan Yunis. He remained in captivity as of early Saturday.

Abu Qusai, the leader of the hostage takers, said the peaceful end to the four-hour drama had occurred because of intervention by Mr. Arafat, according to United Nations officials and French diplomats.

"We have resolved the issue internally," Mr. Abu Qusai told Reuters by phone, but declined to elaborate. The French Consulate in Jerusalem said the four were well.

On Friday afternoon, gunmen seized Gaza's police chief, Ghazi al-Jabali, after firing on his three-car convoy as it traveled on a coastal road, south of Gaza City, Palestinian security officials said. Two of Mr. Jabali's bodyguards were injured, the officials added.

The abductors took Mr. Jabali to the nearby Bureij refugee camp, where he was held for about three hours while other Palestinian security officials negotiated with the kidnappers.

The gunmen were from the Jenin Martyrs Brigades, a little-known group that is an offshoot of a larger faction, the Popular Resistance Committees, the officials said.

The Martyrs Brigades did not issue any public demands while holding Mr. Jabali, though the kidnappers accused him of corruption and called for him to be put on trial, the security officials said.

Mr. Jabali was released and taken to police headquarters, but no arrests were announced, even though the Palestinian security officials said they knew who was responsible.

Internecine quarrels among Palestinians have been on the rise in Gaza despite the plan by Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to evacuate Israeli settlers and soldiers from the territory by the end of next year.

In particular, Mr. Jabali's kidnapping demonstrated the lack of government authority in Gaza. Mr. Jabali is seen as a close ally of Mr. Arafat, who places great importance on maintaining control over the security forces.

To protest the lawlessness, the head of preventive security in Gaza, Rashid Abu Shabak, and the intelligence chief, Amin al-Hindi, both resigned on Friday night, security officials said. But the resignations were not announced publicly, and in the past Palestinian officials have quit during moments of high tension, only to be persuaded by Mr. Arafat or his aides to resume their positions several days later.

Mr. Arafat used to spend much of his time in Gaza, but Israel has kept him confined to his West Bank compound in Ramallah for more than two years.

Other senior Palestinian politicians visit Gaza only rarely. The Palestinian security chiefs in Gaza, including Mr. Jabali, are among the few symbols of civil authority there. Feuds among rival branches of the Palestinian security forces have a long history in Gaza, and Mr. Jabali was the target of violence at least two times earlier this year.

In New York on Tuesday, the United Nations Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, said the Palestinian Authority "is in deep distress and is in real danger of collapse." He said Mr. Arafat lacked the political will to carry out promised reforms, which would include revamping the security services.

Those remarks drew sharp criticism from the Palestinians. A senior aide to Mr. Arafat, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said Mr. Roed-Larsen was no longer welcome in the Palestinian areas. Some Palestinian officials have since distanced themselves from that remark.

But Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, the militant group linked to Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement, said in a statement on Thursday that Mr. Roed-Larsen no longer had "permission" to meet Palestinian leaders.

Mr. Sharon reiterated his intention to pull out of Gaza despite opposition from his traditional right-wing supporters in Israel.

"We must not ignore the demographics," Mr. Sharon said in speech delivered Thursday night to graduates of the National Security College. "It is impossible to maintain a Jewish and democratic country here, over the years, while ruling over millions of Palestinians" in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Sharon has also made clear that in withdrawing the 7,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza, he seeks to strengthen Israel's hold on the West Bank settlements, where about 230,000 settlers live.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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