Amid mounting fears of a descent into anarchy, Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, last night promised to crack down on Palestinian gunmen after one of Yasser Arafat's most loyal supporters was shot dead.
Khalil al-Zaben, a 59-year-old magazine publisher, was hit by 12 bullets at 1am yesterday as he left his home in the Sabra district of Gaza City. He was a man with many enemies, including dissident members of Mr Arafat's Fatah. His magazine, An-Nanashra, campaigned against the Syrian regime, Islamic extremists, Palestinian left-wing groups and local NGOs, which he accused of corruption.
Mr Zaben, who boasted that he was "Arafat's spy", sent a detailed report to the Palestinian President after a recent attempt on the life of another Fatah activist, Ne'iman al-Shanti. Last week he distributed a leaflet denouncing the "gangs of professional killers" he held responsible.
Tawfiq Abu Khousa, deputy chairman of the Gaza journalists' association, described Mr Zaben as a "martyr of the word", the latest victim of an epidemic of politically motivated assaults on media personnel.
Yesterday's ambush reflects a power struggle, which is eroding Fatah's authority as the leading Palestinian nationalist movement. It came on the heels of attacks on the official television station, where armed men demanded jobs at gunpoint, and the land registration department, where others ordered clerks to transfer property to them.
After an emergency meeting of the Palestinian Government and National Security Council, Mr Qureia denounced the murder as "the greatest of crimes". Mr Arafat condemned it as a "dirty assassination". Sa'eb Erakat, the chief peace negotiator, said the chaos was "undermining the struggle to establish an independent state".
The Israelis are worried that their proposed Gaza pullout will precipitate civil strife and a takeover by Islamic extremists. Britain, which shares their concern, is floating the idea of international supervision.
Mr Qureia ordered "serious measures" against the publisher's killers. He pledged to unify the multiple security forces and to pay their men's salaries into their individual bank accounts, reforms long resisted by Mr Arafat, who preferred to divide and rule and to exercise the patronage of paying them through their respective commanders. Critics are waiting to see whether Mr Qureia has either the will or the power to turn words into deeds.
Last weekend, Ghassan Shakah, the mayor of Nablus, the biggest West Bank city, resigned in protest at the authorities' failure to rein in the thugs he said were terrorising their own people.
"Nablus is living in chaos," he said. "I don't want to stand idly by and see my city collapsing." Rival gangs are reported to have killed at least 30 people there in the past few months.
Bassem Eid, director of the Palestine Human Rights Monitoring Group, said: "The West Bank and Gaza are left without any kind of control, neither by the Israelis nor by the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians feel people can take the law into their own hands. That is why the whole revenge phenomenon is increasing. Human rights groups raised the issue of internal violence a year ago, but nobody listened."
Mr Eid feared it was too late for Mr Qureia's government to impose discipline. "Only outside intervention might keep the Palestinian streets under order," he said. "We need international protection, which must include Arab forces from countries including Jordan and Egypt, or even Muslims from Turkey."
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