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Palestinian militants kill former security chief, undermining Abbas

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' tentative attempts to impose order in the Gaza Strip suffered a dangerous blow Wednesday when masked gunmen staged a sophisticated attack four blocks from his home that took the life of a former Gaza security chief.

Calling it an assault on corruption, Palestinian militants claimed responsibility for killing Moussa Arafat, the 65-year-old cousin of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and kidnapping Moussa Arafat's 34-year-old son, Manhal.

While Moussa Arafat was widely reviled as a corrupt strongman, the attack was seen as a serious challenge to Abbas as he embarks on an ambitious economic recovery plan to follow the imminent Israeli withdrawal from the one-fifth of the Gaza Strip used for decades for Jewish settlements.

"The Palestinian Authority really does not have a handle on law and order in the Gaza Strip," said Mouin Rabbani, a senior analyst in Jordan with the International Crisis Group, an independent crisis management and research organization.

The Web site of the Haaretz newspaper reported that Abbas, the authority president, had canceled his visit next week to the United Nations because of the deteriorating security situation and the Israeli pullout.

Wednesday's early morning shootout took place in a quiet Gaza City neighborhood filled with many government officials. Arafat lived just a few blocks from the president's home and his coastal government compound.

Witnesses, family members and Arafat's bodyguards said more than 100 gunmen sealed off the area and stormed the four-story house just after 4 a.m.

While militants set up a roadblock across the street from Abbas' house for a half-hour, masked gunmen fought their way into Arafat's home and shot the former security official dead. Arafat's lifeless body was carried to a main road nearby and dumped on the street while militants hustled his son away.

Abdel Hadi Ab Naba, 26, a bodyguard for Moussa Arafat, complained that the Palestinian Authority did not intervene to stop the assassination. "Why didn't the Palestinian Authority come when they could have been there in a few seconds?" he said.

Hours after the killing, a group known as the Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility for the attack, said it was interrogating Manhal Arafat and threatened to kill him for following in the footsteps of his father.

"If the Palestinian Authority doesn't recognize the danger of these people, we will launch a campaign to eliminate all of them," said Abu Radwan, a top militant with the Popular Resistance Committees, a breakaway group made up of disaffected members of larger political groups, including Hamas and Fatah, the dominant political party in the region.

Abbas ousted Moussa Arafat as his top Gaza Strip security chief in April. But Arafat stayed on as a cabinet-level security adviser to Abbas.

Rabbani said that Abbas lacks the strength and respect of former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to control the emboldened factions, who have stepped in to fill the power vacuum.

"The Palestinian Authority is unwilling to take the tough decisions to confront some very powerful forces," Rabbani said.

Israel is in the final stages of shutting down all 21 of its Gaza Strip settlements and expects to hand the land over to the Palestinians by early next week.

Abbas largely succeeded in convincing Islamic militants to halt their attacks on Israeli forces during last month's contentious process of forcibly removing thousands of recalcitrant settlers who refused to leave their homes. But he has faced a growing number of internal challenges from an array of groups in the Gaza Strip intent on testing his resolve.

In recent weeks, gangs affiliated with local clans have briefly kidnapped international aid workers and a French journalist in an effort to put pressure on the Palestinian government to release family members.

Police officers upset about low pay have gone on strike and burned tires to block the coastal road. And now Palestinian militants are staging increasingly deadly assaults on prominent government officials.

At almost every turn, Abbas has avoided direct confrontation with militants. Before the Israelis launched their settlement shutdown last month, Palestinian security officials engaged in street battles with Hamas gunmen.

Since then, the Islamic militants have been more directly testing Abbas. Most prominently, a fugitive Hamas military commander released a video vowing to continue the fight against Israel.

Such threats have heightened concern among Israeli leaders, who are stepping up their calls on Abbas to quickly disarm Hamas and prevent militants from staging further terrorist attacks.


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

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