After Israel, who can run Gaza?

In the wake of Israel's pullout and Yasser Arafat's death, militants have taken control.

As the first year devoid of an Israeli presence since 1967 dawns in the Gaza Strip, armed militias roam the streets freely, foreigners are kidnapped with regularity, and the measure of a man in this coastal territory is not his political title, or even the size of his house, but the number of AK-47-wielding bodyguards he employs.

When Israel left Gaza four months ago, full control over the 1.3 million people was ostensibly transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA). But its authority in this coastal territory has deteriorated to such a state of anarchy, that the best-armed gangs or families are effectively the law now.

"Yasser Arafat left a terrible legacy of violence behind him where people are always acting outside the law," says Eyad Sarraj, a Palestinian political analyst and a candidate in the Jan. 25 elections. "Now, with him gone, everyone is fighting for his power."

Tuesday, Palestinian parties launched their election campaigns across Gaza and the West Bank with parades, posters, and banners. This is the latest manifestation of the central Palestinian power struggle between the Islamic militant group Hamas and the ruling Fatah Party.

With Palestinian Legislative Council elections scheduled in three weeks, the violence in Gaza has heightened as dozens of armed factions, most claiming ties to Fatah, jostle for control. On Monday, even the Palestinian police donned masks and shot their guns in the air in a mass protest against the PA's lack of will to give police permission to aggressively tackle the escalating crime.

All throughout the days here gun shots ring out. From time to time, explosions from homemade bombs, rockets, and the countering Israeli artillery fire echo through the graffiti-ridden streets.

But the police Monday had an additional demand of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, one that is being made increasingly by leaders of his Fatah Party: delay the elections. "We are in a dangerous situation in which any attempt to hold elections might bring about battles between armed factions and the police," PA Police Chief Ala Hosni told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

After insisting for weeks that elections would go ahead as scheduled, Mr. Abbas said for the first time on Monday that he would consider delaying the vote; not because of the violence, but due to the question of whether Israel would bar Palestinians in East Jerusalem from voting.

Despite previous ambiguous statements from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israeli government spokesman Raanan Gissin says Israel will not stand in the way of Palestinians living in Jerusalem from casting ballots.

"We will find a way to fulfill our obligations to allow them to exercise their right to vote," Mr. Gissin says. While the exact formula has not yet been decided, he says, it would likely be similar to the 1996 Palestinian elections when Israel allowed mail-in balloting from Jerusalem as well as easier access to areas in the West Bank with voting booths.

(Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, Palestinian political activities are prohibited in Jerusalem, as is participation in the PA by parties, such as Hamas, that do not recognize Israel's right to exist.)

"The Palestinians are looking for an excuse to blame Israel because they are incapable of controlling their own streets," Gissin says. "If they decide they want to cancel the election, they do it on their own merit, they can't hang it on us."

Mr. Sarraj, who is running for a seat in the Palestinian legislature with the Wahad [Promise] Party, says the PA's lack of law enforcement in Gaza and the talk about voting problems in East Jerusalem are calculated moves by Abbas to provide "excuses" to delay elections he knows Fatah will fair poorly in.

After the strong showing by Hamas in recent municipal elections in Palestinian cities, Abbas is worried that not only will Fatah lose substantial ground in the legislature, it may lose control of that body altogether, Sarraj says.

Of all the militant Palestinian groups, Hamas has been responsible for the most Israeli deaths in terrorist attacks. Yet in a move to increase its political standing, Hamas has largely kept to the terms of a cease-fire it agreed to with Abbas last February.

On Monday, an official Hamas statement demanded that "the excuse of the security situation and anarchy in the Palestinian Authority not be used to postpone the elections."

And it won't be, says Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator who often speaks for the PA. "President Abbas knows the catastrophic consequences of postponing the elections," he says. As long as Israel provides the same voting access as it did in 1996, Mr. Erekat says, the elections will go ahead as planned - Israel should "not stand in the way" of that process.

As for the violence on Gaza's streets, Erekat says that while "every effort is being made to contain" it, the PA was not sure who was behind the rash of shootings and government office takeovers by masked gunmen.

British human rights worker Kate Burton and her visiting parents were kidnapped last Wednesday by a previously unknown group of gunmen and released two days later.

"It's impossible to say who has guns in Gaza anymore," Erekat says. "The ballots are the only thing that can stop the violence at this point."

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