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Security concerns growing in Gaza Strip as withdrawal nears

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—A new wave of street battles, bombings and short-term kidnappings of Western aid workers in the Gaza Strip has raised concerns that the occupied territory could devolve into open warfare between rival Palestinian factions once Israel pulls out of the disputed region in the coming weeks.

Faced with new challenges to his authority, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tried to reassert control Tuesday by urging Palestinians to show the world a united front and announcing plans to hold long-delayed legislative elections in January.

But the latest surge in internal violence has some within the Palestinian government worried that they may face an immediate crisis after the Israelis leave.

"I'm afraid of what's going to happen," one Palestinian Authority senior adviser said last week in Gaza City, requesting anonymity for fear of expressing public doubt about Abbas. Minutes later, the sound of a bomb blast—detonated in front of the home of the Palestinian Authority's chief justice—echoed off surrounding buildings.

With Israel preparing to pull all 8,500 Jewish settlers and its military bases out of the Gaza Strip beginning next week in a bid to boost its security, Abbas has been trying to contain violence and ensure that Palestinian militants don't launch attacks on the Israeli settlements that could provoke a punishing Israeli response.

Abbas succeeded in halting clashes between police and Hamas militants, and attacks on Israeli settlements have tapered off in recent days. But there's been a renewed round of violence in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian Authority's top judge briefly resigned last week and dozens of his colleagues held a demonstration to protest the deteriorating security conditions after two bomb attacks targeted judicial officials.

Over the last week, seven aid workers have been kidnapped and held for several hours in three separate incidents around the Gaza Strip. Although the abductors treated the captives well and the kidnappings are believed to be concerned more with family disputes, they are unusual for this area and suggest that more people are willing to challenge Abbas and his authority.

On Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross took the rare step of temporarily suspending its work in the Gaza Strip after one of its main offices was riddled by gunfire.

Tawfiq Abu Khousa, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority's Interior Ministry, complained that the government is outgunned by militants because Israel is refusing to allow the security forces to buy new equipment.

"The main reason that Hamas dared to act in this way is because they know that the Palestinian Authority lacks weapons and ammunition," he said. "If they realized that the Palestinian Authority had enough power, they would not dare to do anything."

While Israeli and Palestinian officials say efforts to work together to ensure a smooth transition have made some progress, there are still many unresolved issues, including whether the Palestinian security forces can get new equipment.

In an effort to reassert some control, Abbas announced Tuesday that he would hold legislative elections in January. Abbas had indefinitely postponed the election, originally set for last month, after his Hamas rivals won surprising majorities at the local level.

In a speech to Palestinian lawmakers, Abbas also urged people to unite behind the government and show the world that Palestinians can build a new state.

"The military presence in the streets should end," said Abbas, who has temporarily moved to Gaza to ease tensions and to oversee the transition.

Abbas is so far receiving support from at least one critical faction: Islamic Jihad, the militant Islamist group that's carried out many suicide attacks against Israel.

Nafez Azzam, a senior Islamic Jihad leader, said his group doesn't want to undermine the Palestinian cause.

"There is a general desire on the part of the Palestinian people to present a honorable face during and after the withdrawal," Azzam said.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Mahmoud Habboush in Gaza City contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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