Kidnappers point the way to anarchy

Observations on Gaza

If you live in Gaza you put up with things others would find disconcerting. There are the thunderous sonic booms from Israeli fighter jets, the distant thuds of shells landing in Gaza's new "no-go zone", the nightly machine-gun banter of the Palestinian security forces. And though we are now spared the Israeli sniper fire, we have a novel hazard in the masked gunmen who shoot haphazardly in the streets.

It was these gunmen who kidnapped and later released the 24-year-old Briton Kate Burton and her parents, and their emergence and activities have prompted considerable dismay among the battered people of this little enclave.

The kidnappings are frequent (as I write, two Japanese journalists have just narrowly escaped abduction) and seem to follow a public ritual. Foreigners are lifted in the street; human rights groups express outrage; the Palestinian Authority says it will get tough; the security forces promise a happy conclusion - and the hostages are freed. The Burton case was unusual only in that it lasted three days.

Nor is there any mystery about who is responsible - disgruntled members of Fatah, the ruling party led by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, or members of one of its radical offshoots. Their demands can be banal: they want jobs, promotions in the security forces or the release of relatives from Palestinian or Israeli prisons.

It seems tame, especially when set against what goes on in Iraq, but in Gaza that is not how it is viewed. The feeling here is that the gunmen are in control, that anarchy is not far off and that Gaza looks like turning into a failed state even before it becomes a state.

The activities of the gunmen have their impact: they have scared off the UN, which ordered all non-essential personnel out of the Strip months ago, and prompted most western countries to warn their nationals against visiting Gaza. That is bad news for a territory dependent on foreign aid workers.

To drive the point home, these groups also closed down the main hangout for foreigners, a bar called the Beach Club, which was the only place in Gaza that served alcohol. More importantly, the kidnappings are a painful embarrassment to Abbas and his party ahead of elections due on 25 January, because they highlight the impotence of the Palestinian Authority.

As one security official put it: "If I personally stood on the door of every house in Gaza, if I gave each citizen a private policeman, and if I gave every policeman a private policeman, there would still be a problem with the security situation." A senior Authority official was even more blunt, saying simply: "We are no longer in control."

If they aren't, who is? Increasingly there is a sense here that the kidnappings are too well planned and too neatly resolved to be the product of organic displeasure gone awry. Many believe the kidnappers are overseen by members of the Palestinian Authority's young guard who are either destabilising Gaza ahead of the parliamentary elections, or worse, preparing a coup d'etat.

It is not hard to see the logic. If elections take place on time and in an orderly fashion, Hamas, the Islamic group reviled as terrorist in Israel and the west but embraced in Gaza as efficient and honest, will sweep the polls.

More chaos, the argument goes, could give the Palestinian Authority grounds to postpone the elections for a third time, which in turn would give Hamas's opponents time to put their house in order. Yes, it is a conspiracy theory, but then, in a place where your lifelong neighbour can turn out to be a mole for the Israelis, plots that elsewhere would seem far-fetched are the stuff of everyday life.