Abduction signals troubling trend in Gaza

Emilio Morenatti was kidnapped Tuesday, the third abduction of a foreign journalist in two months.

A Spanish photojournalist was kidnapped at gunpoint in Gaza Tuesday, the latest in a worrying trend of abductions of foreigners – particularly, but not exclusively, journalists – in the Palestinian territories.

No group claimed responsibility for the abduction. But amid increasing lawlessness, economic deterioration, and internecine rivalries that have become a prevalent aspect of life in Gaza following January's election of a Hamas-led government, the kidnapping is seen as a troubling signal of a Palestinian Authority (PA) unable to control radical elements or enforce law and order.

Moreover, this and other kidnappings, analysts say, are probably the product of tiny offshoot cells who could be acting independently of the main factions that have long defined Palestinian politics, and who are likely taking a page from the recent kidnapping feats of Hizbullah militants and Iraqi insurgents.

"There are some groups that are taking cues from Hizbullah, but also from the Iraq model as well," says Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on Hamas and other Middle Eastern militant groups at Swedish National Defense College. "Those currents are pulsating in all sorts of directions. We're moving in dangerous and uncharted territory when you have autonomous, independent groups that are learning from other conflict zones and taking advantage of the situation."

The Associated Press (AP) photographer, Emilio Morenatti, was leaving his apartment in Gaza Tuesday when militants grabbed him, shoved him into a white Volkswagen and drove off, according to an AP driver and translator.

Some of the details of the abduction bore similarities to the August kidnapping of two journalists for Fox TV, US reporter Steve Centanni and New Zealander cameraman Olaf Wiig, who were snatched at gunpoint from their vehicle. The two men, like Mr. Morenatti, had been staying in Gaza for several days at time.

After intensive campaigning by family members and colleagues, the two were released uninjured but told a harrowing story of their ordeal, including rough treatment and being moved from house to house. They were forced to make several videos, including one which aired on Al Jazeera and demanded the release of all Muslim female prisoners held by the US.

Those demands represented an unprecedented shift in direction for Palestinian militants – one that has a much more global agenda, rather than one focused solely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Dr. Ranstorp says whether Palestinian militants may actually be getting help from Al Qaeda-related groups – as Israeli intelligence officials have occasionally indicated – or simply gleaning inspiration from the international Islamic group founded by Osama bin Laden is a question that is almost irrelevant.

"I think it's more the state of mind," he says. "Yes, there will be people who will be sympathetic not just to Al Qaeda, but Hizbullah. The point is that they're improving and improvising. I don't think it really matters whether Al Qaeda is in Gaza or not. If the idea is attacking and killing Westerners, you don't need Al Qaeda to figure out how to do that."

Tuesday's kidnappers also had uncanny timing, Gaza sources noted. First, it was the start of the Eid el-Fitr holiday that comes at the end of Ramadan, a time when political activity generally comes to a halt and people prefer to be at home with their families. Moreover, the Palestinian Minister of the Interior, Hamas's Sayeed Siam, just returned Tuesday from a trip abroad, and there was some speculation that the timing would have been particularly embarrassing for him.

"So far, we have no idea who it is, but whoever was behind this is a criminal and should be punished," says Khaled Abu Hilal, the interior ministry spokesman. "If it's a message, it's a terrible one and it's beyond the law. Its aim is to create more and more chaos and unstability for the Palestinians, and put more obstacles in front of the Palestinian government."

He blames the deterioration of conditions in Gaza on Israel, whose military operations have made it increasingly difficult for the Palestinian police to function. "The security situation is really difficult and the Israelis and their collaborators are directly responsible for this chaos and the anarchy, by destroying the bases and headquarters of the Palestinian police."

Tuesday, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said the army will carry out more military operations in Gaza to prevent Palestinian rocket attacks and arms smuggling from Egypt.

The army just completed a week-long operation along the Gaza-Egypt border corridor that was meant to find and blow up tunnels used by militants to smuggle arms. The army said it destroyed 15 tunnels during the operation, the first along the border since Israel withdrew from Gaza in September 2005.

Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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