The Gaza Strip sank deeper into self-destructive anarchy yesterday amid mounting criticism of Mahmoud Abbas' leadership and demands for his Palestinian Authority to postpone parliamentary elections due to take place on 25 January.
Two days after kidnappers released Kate Burton, a British human rights worker, and her parents, Palestinian gunmen seized an Italian member of an 18-strong European parliamentary delegation visiting a candidate in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis. After about three hours, witnesses said, the police, who tried unsuccessfully to negotiate the release of Alessandro Bernardini, an Italian peace activist, stormed the building where he was being held. After a brief shootout, Mr Bernardini, who works as an aide in the European Parliament, was escorted away unharmed for debriefing by Palestinian security officers.
He was the last member of the delegation leaving an office and residential tower to board their mini-bus. A white car pulled up beside them and the gunmen leapt out. "They fired three times into the air," Mohamed Murad, a bus driver who witnessed the kidnap, said. "They forced him into their car and sped away." The Al-Aqsa Brigades, which are affiliated to Mr Abbas's Fatah, acknowledged responsibility. Palestinian commentators suspect that factions within Fatah which fear that internal squabbles might give Hamas victory are trying to sabotage the election. The Burton family's kidnappers threatened to seize foreign observers monitoring the poll. Rather than confront them, the Palestinian Authority has frequently paid off kidnappers with public jobs and salaries.
Mr Bernardini said he was treated well by his kidnappers and that the ordeal had not altered his pro-Palestinian point of view. "They gave me cigarettes and tea. I will not change my ideas about the occupation," he explained.
Earlier yesterday, another Al-Aqsa gang bombed a UN club in Gaza City, the only place left in the conservative Muslim territory where foreigners can buy alcohol. The attackers waited until new year revellers had left at about 3 am, then bound and beat a security guard and detonated three explosive charges in the bar. The blasts shattered windows and brought down a ceiling.
Eyad Sarraj, a Gaza psychiatrist and independent parliamentary candidate, called for the elections to be postponed. "When there is no security and no law enforcement," he asked, "how can you proceed with democratic elections? The security forces are not in control. In fact, they are the root of the problem." Only last week, armed Palestinian police invaded the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt demanding the execution of a man accused of killing one of their comrades during a clan quarrel. European supervisors, posted there under an agreement with Israel to ensure that militants do not smuggle in weapons and reinforcements, withdrew. The terminal was closed for a few hours, causing Palestinian travellers long delays.
Dr Sarraj, a British-educated human rights campaigner, accused the militants of damaging the Palestinian cause by driving away foreign sympathisers. Many international aid groups have scaled down their expatriate staffs because they no longer feel safe in Gaza. The Foreign Office has advised British citizens to keep away.
"Who else is in Gaza now except the people who are bringing money, or food or medicines for the Palestinian people?" Dr Sarraj said. "The place is full of people who are expressing solidarity, and look what's happening to them. It's as if these gunmen are working for the enemies of the Palestinians. Perhaps they themselves are our enemies."
Hafez Barghouti, the editor-in-chief of Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, an influential West Bank daily, denounced Mr Abbas for failing to keep his promise to provide security and for going on a fundraising mission to the Gulf states in the midst of the crisis.
"Once he gets back," Mr Barghouti said, "he has a week to decide whether to act or to go home. We cannot go on like this. He must wage war against these gangs, who are using their weapons for their own purposes, who are acting against foreigners, against Palestinians, but not against Israel. The Palestinian Authority has never moved its forces to put an end to these groups.
"Gaza is under his control. He has to tell the people what he intends to do. So far, he has never spoken directly to the people. If he does that, he will get public support." Mr Barghouti charged the Palestinian leader, who succeeded Yasser Arafat a year ago, with being too closed and too indecisive. "Few people see him," he complained. "He doesn't listen to advice."
The internecine strife has overshadowed the continuing battle astride Gaza's border with Israel, which has enforced a no-go zone in the north of the strip to try and stop Palestinians launching rockets and mortars.