Top military aide assassinated in Gaza

Moussa Arafat was dragged by gunmen from his Gaza home and shot him dead in the street on Wednesday GAZA CITY (AFP) — The security chaos blighting the Gaza Strip Wednesday claimed its highest-profile victim when local strongman Moussa Arafat, an adviser to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, was assassinated by gunmen.

Abbas led condemnation of the popular resistance committees’ killing of Arafat, a cousin of the late Yasser Arafat, that undermined calls for calm on the eve of Israel’s departure from the territory after a 38-year occupation.

Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz recommended the departure of troops from Gaza be brought forward by three days to Monday after soldiers guarding empty Jewish settlements shot dead a Palestinian teenager, while Egyptian forces prepared to take up their positions on the Gaza-Egypt border.

Arafat, feared by many for his brutal regime as head of national security, was shot 23 times by gunmen who laid siege to his Gaza City home before dawn.

After a nearly hour-long gunfight between the assailants and his bodyguards, he was shot in front of his family and then dragged into the street where gunmen continued to pump bullets into his body.

His killers fled, taking hostage his son, Manhal.

After a visit to the Arafat family home, Abbas convened a meeting of his national security council, after which a state of alert was decreed.

The Palestinian leader vowed that the killing “will not hinder efforts to impose order and the rule of law.”

Moussa Arafat had been demoted by Abbas earlier this year to the role of adviser, as the Palestinian Authority president sought to make a clean break from his predecessor who died in November.

Abbas has so far been unable to reverse a tide of lawlessness, particularly in Gaza, and the United Nations recently pulled out all its non-essential foreign staff after a spate of kidnappings.

“This despicable act shows the deterioration [in security] and the state of violence which we find in Gaza,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, who was in Gaza for talks with Abbas, said of Arafat’s killing.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who was also in the region, said he found in the Palestinian leader “a total determination to preserve law and order in Gaza” but said it was too early to tell if he could succeed.

The main factions, who often operate outside the law, have already vowed to defy the Palestinian Authority’s demands to disarm after the departure of the last Israeli troops.

The popular resistance committees is an umbrella organisation, many of whose members are former loyalists of Abbas’ Fateh faction. It also includes ex-members of the Islamist group Hamas.

In a veiled reference to Arafat at an address to mourners at the funeral for the teenager shot Tuesday, senior Hamas official Sheikh Ahmed Nimr said “our people are getting rid of the traitors one by one.”

The teenager was shot dead during clashes between scores of stone-throwing youths and soldiers guarding settlements evacuated more than a fortnight ago.

Youths returned on Wednesday to hurl more stones, prompting the Israelis to fire into the air, although there were no reports of casualties.

With the situation so volatile, Mofaz recommended that the scheduled September 15 departure date be advanced by three days.

In an apparent readiness, Palestinian officials said the main Rafah terminal leading from Gaza into Egypt was closed although the Israeli military insisted it was still operational.

Egyptian security sources also said their lightly armed border guards would begin to deploy along the Rafah border from Saturday in place of departing Israeli troops under the terms of a deal inked last week.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, meanwhile, said Israel would not tolerate Hamas’ participation in January’s Palestinian parliamentary elections.

“We are determined not to allow Hamas the chance of taking up weapons, continuing as a terrorist organisation and participating in these elections,” he said. Hamas said Israel had “no right to interfere in Palestinian affairs.”

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