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Kidnappings boom in lawless Gaza

A COOK in a seafood restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean in Gaza might imagine he was not employed in a dangerous trade. But Rafiq Yusuf Abu Hasira, working in the popular Salaam restaurant in the centre of the city, found that even a life devoted to preparing fish and shrimp did not save him from the spreading tentacles of the 11 Palestinian security services.

A month ago he was kidnapped by Palestinian Military Intelligence, headed by Moussa Arafat, a cousin of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Jocular stories circulated in Gaza about intelligence officers objecting to the quality of the food they were served in the Salaam. By another account Mr Abu Hasira's detention was connected to his late brother's alleged links to the drugs trade.

The kidnapping turned out to have a more prosaic explanation. Military Intelligence wanted $50,000 (pounds 31,000) to let Mr Abu Hasira go. They never got it. The Salaam is the favourite eating place of foreign diplomats visiting Gaza and the story of the abduction became well known. On 8 March Mr Abu Hasira was released.

He was lucky. Foreign diplomats estimate that Military Intelligence has carried out 20 kidnappings of local businessmen and refused to release them except for cash. Not surprisingly, many potential targets now only move outside their houses accompanied by armed bodyguards.

"Power in Gaza is flowing to the security services," says one diplomat. "You only do business with their permission." Just at the moment when Mr Arafat is threatening to declare a Palestinian state on 4 May, the civil institutions of his Palestinian Authority are disintegrating. Ministries, courts and even Mr Arafat's political organisation, Fatah, are marginalised.

Mr Arafat has always ruled through multiple and competing security services. His methods in Gaza are little different from those in Beirut 20 years ago. The result is a luxuriant growth of security services, ranging from Preventive Security, the most powerful, to General Intelligence, Force 17, the presidential guard and the Special Security Services. There is even a naval intelligence, though Mr Arafat has no navy. Small in size, even this organisation is to be feared. In 1996 it tortured to death a local businessman in Nablus, a town on the West Bank, using an electric water heater.

The security services ignore the court system. In 1995 Mr Arafat set up special state security courts which supersede the judicial system. Trial is by military officers, is held in secret and there is no appeal, though the Palestinian leader can confirm, increase or reduce prison terms. The special courts also pass death sentences.

Exactly how these special security courts operate is illustrated by the trial of Colonel Ahmad Abu Mustapha, a member of the Palestinian border guards, a video tape of which was seen by The Independent. It is a nasty case. Colonel Abu Mustapha, 54, a Bedouin, was on trial accused of raping a six-year-old boy named Saed Abu Shamaleh in Gaza last month. The victim picked him out at an identity parade.

Proceedings are summary. A witness for the prosecution gives a rambling account of what he knows. There is no cross-questioning. Col Abu Mustapha vigorously denies the charges. He says he was at home asleep when the rape took place. He adds: "I never saw this boy before in my life. I didn't do this. The court isn't acting justly."

Col Abu Mustapha, looking as if he is about to collapse, pleads with the three grim-faced Palestinian officers judging him. He asks them to re-open the investigation. One of the officers says: "Don't give a speech." Col Abu Mustapha replies: "I am not giving a speech. I'm asking the court to reinvestigate. If I had done it I would have gone to the court myself."

He does not finish his plea. One of the blue-uniformed policemen standing behind him in the dock places his hands on Col Abu Mustapha's shoulders and forces him back into his seat.

Col Abu Mustapha is not kept long in suspense over his fate. After a brief adjournment the judges return. They give him 15 years' hard labour for the rape. But for the peculiar offence of "motivating people against the Palestinian Authority" they sentence him to execution by firing squad. There is applause in the court room.

The colonel looks stunned. He looks down as the camera zooms in on his face and a policeman jerks his head back so the cameraman can get a better shot. A few hours later Mr Arafat confirmed the sentence and Col Abu Mustapha was shot dead.