Committee declares state of emergency in Gaza Strip
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- A security panel headed by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declared a state of emergency in the Gaza Strip early today after a wave of kidnappings involving a Palestinian police chief, a security official and four French citizens.
Although most of the hostages were later freed, the crisis raised questions about the future of Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia's government, which will meet today in a session that could determine its future, a Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity.
The declaration by the Palestinian security council called for increased protection around government facilities and canceled all leave for security officials.
The deteriorating situation reflected the growing disagreements among militant groups and individuals trying to strengthen their positions before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fulfills his pledge to withdraw Israeli forces and some 7,500 settlers from Gaza late next year.
The kidnappings prompted two senior Palestinian security officials to submit their resignations, but Arafat refused to accept them.
The apparent challenge to Qureia comes as Arafat attempts to fend off criticism from some Palestinian officials, unhappy about the pace of government reform and the persistence of corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Arafat's popularity has waned as tensions have escalated.
Qureia replaced Mahmoud Abbas in September 2003, but for most of his time in office has languished in Arafat's shadow. Abbas resigned as prime minister after four months, complaining he was hamstrung by Arafat.
The crisis was triggered by militants who abducted the national police chief and another top security official they accused of corruption.
At about midday Friday, gunmen abducted Palestinian Chief of Police Ghazi Jabali after attacking his vehicle in a highway ambush three miles south of Gaza City.
The militants smashed a car window, pulled Jabali out and sped off toward the Bureij Refugee Camp, witnesses said.
Two of his bodyguards were wounded in a shootout. The militants apparently were angry about not getting jobs with the security forces.
Younger militants have been carrying out suicide attacks against Israelis and bearing the brunt of Israeli retaliatory strikes, and they now are seeking more prominent roles in Palestinian security organizations.
Hours later, Palestinian Authority officials negotiated the release of Jabali.
A group from the little-known Jenin Martyrs Brigade claimed responsibility for the abduction. But other militants said the gunmen were members of a militia Jabali himself created to back his bid for power after the Israelis leave Gaza.
Shortly after Jabali's release, the director of military coordination in southern Gaza, Col. Khaled Abu Aloula, was seized from his car while returning to Gaza City from Khan Younis.
Palestinian security officials blamed recently fired policemen whose request for reinstatement was refused by Aloula.
Several new militant organizations have appeared in Gaza, many grouped under the umbrella of the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committee. The committee, which has no clear political agenda or ideology, was pressing for more jobs in the police force for its members.
As head of the police, Jabali has been identified as Arafat's "enforcer," a tough leader known for cracking down on dissenters.
But Jabali has made enemies over the years among Palestinians who see him as part of the corruption that riddled the Gaza administration.
Jabali has been the target of several attacks this year. He escaped harm in April when militants planted a bomb at his home.
He has clashed with Mohammed Dahlan, a former Palestinian security chief also bidding to bolster his position as the Israelis prepare to leave.
Militants then kidnapped four French citizens drinking coffee at a cafe in Khan Younis and held them at the offices of the Red Crescent Society there. Hours later, the four -- two men and two women -- were released unharmed by the gunmen, who said they acted to draw world attention to Palestinian suffering caused by Israel's occupation.
The French were volunteers working on an electrical project in the southern city of Khan Younis.
Later Friday, the head of the Palestinian intelligence service, Maj. Gen. Amin al Hindi, and the head of Preventive Security in the Gaza Strip, Rashid Abu Shbak resigned in response to the deteriorating security situation. However, Arafat refused to accept the resignations.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a group affiliated with the ruling Fatah party, banned the chief U.N. Mideast envoy from entering Palestinian territories or meeting Palestinian officials.
The group's order followed a similar ban by the authority and represented an escalation in Palestinian anger over envoy Terje Roed-Larsen's public criticisms of Arafat.
The order could be considered a warning that the Norwegian diplomat could be attacked if he defied the ban.
A group spokesman said on condition of anonymity that Arafat aides asked the militants to release the statement against Roed-Larsen. But another Al-Aqsa official denied that in a phone call to The Associated Press.
"The statement reflects our views," said Abu Amin, an Aqsa leader in the West Bank town of Jenin. "It has nothing to do with Yasser Arafat."
Roed-Larsen has long been considered close to Arafat and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
But earlier this week, Roed-Larsen told a U.N. Security Council briefing that the Palestinian leader was blocking vital reforms within the Palestinian Authority and hindering peace moves.