Leading article: Another dangerous moment in the Middle East

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A spate of kidnappings has thrown a spotlight on the anarchic forces that threaten the stability of the Gaza Strip. The apparently random seizure of foreigners - including the British human rights activist Kate Burton, released along with her parents last Friday - are tarnishing the international image of the Palestinian cause. If such acts continue, foreign investment in the Palestinian territories is likely to dry up. Which foreign company would send money or manpower to a country in which both can be snatched so easily? The kidnappings are also undermining - perhaps fatally - the authority of the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who appears weak in the face of even minor militant groups. The very future of a nascent Palestinian state could be in jeopardy.

The voices calling on Mr Abbas to crack down on those militant groups are growing louder. Yesterday's efforts to free an Italian peace activist by Palestinian security forces were thankfully successful, but the operation cannot conceal the fact that the Palestinian Authority does not have anything like full control over its own territories. This is especially true in Gaza, where corruption by the former regime of Yasser Arafat has eroded the bonds between the Palestinian leadership and the people of this benighted strip of territory, and where years of insurrection and Israeli military repression have created a fractured and brutalised society.

The withdrawal of the Israeli army and the abandonment of settlements last year left a power vacuum. Armed factions in Gaza are manoeuvring to fill it. This is certainly one of the reasons why the number of kidnappings is on the rise. It is true, as many have pointed out, that this situation has been intensified by the forthcoming Palestinian elections. This violence is in some respects political in nature. But it also the case that much of the turmoil has roots in old family feuds. In many ways the unrest in Gaza is a simple law and order issue - both commodities in which the strip is profoundly lacking. Mr Abbas finds himself in an almost impossible position. If he attempts to reassert his authority by clamping down hard on Gaza's gangs, he is likely to exacerbate tensions and increase instability. Yet if he fails to take swift action to prevent further kidnappings, he risks undermining his own government's right to speak for the Palestinian people. And all the while he is conscious of the fact that the worse the situation grows in Gaza, the easier it will be for the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to justify hanging on to illegal settlements in the West Bank.

The best hope for the Palestinians at the present time is that this month's elections will return a stable coalition of Fatah, Hamas and perhaps some respected independent figures. This could have the affect of re-legitimising the leadership of Mr Abbas and enabling him to go after the gangs of Gaza.

It is worth remembering that, disturbing as these kidnappings are, the situation in Gaza bears only a superficial resemblance to that of Iraq. Detainees have been well treated and have all, eventually, been released. And the outraged reaction of the vast majority of Palestinians to the abductions - particularly to that of Ms Burton - is an indication that most Palestinians recognise that such acts are not in their national interest.

Mr Abbas must walk a particularly delicate line over coming days and months. The fate of a Palestinian state hangs in the balance. The onus on the rest of the world in this disturbing time is to encourage the Palestinian Authority's efforts to build up respected national institutions, even as the situation on the ground seems to be growing steadily bleaker.

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