Interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas escaped unharmed after militants from his Fatah movement opened fire near him in a tent crowded with mourners for Yasser Arafat — a warning that the period leading to the Jan. 9 election of an Arafat successor could be chaotic and violent.
An Abbas bodyguard and a security officer were killed and six people were wounded in Sunday's shooting in Gaza City. The first shots triggered a chaotic firefight of several minutes with security guards — though it appears from the casualty count that most fired in the air, rather than taking aim.
Some 30 or 40 gunmen were involved, none of them masked, but police declined to say Monday whether arrests had been made. The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent group with ties to Fatah, denied it sent the gunmen, and the rival Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups were not considered suspects.
Attack played down
Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, played down the incident, saying it was not an assassination attempt. “While we were receiving condolences, a huge crowd gathered there and then random shooting broke out, but not in my direction,” he said. However, some of the gunmen chanted anti-Abbas slogans.
Sufian Abu Zaydeh, a Palestinian Authority official in Gaza, said he stood near Abbas when the shooting erupted. The gunmen “are people who don’t accept Abu Mazen ... don’t accept anyone,” Abu Zaydeh told Israel Army Radio. He declined to say whether he recognized the armed men.
The temporary Palestinian leadership, headed by Abbas, has been trying to send a message of unity since Arafat’s death Thursday. Arafat’s responsibilities have been divided among several leaders, and officials held talks with rival factions in Fatah, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The death of Arafat — who led the Palestinians for four decades —has opened up what many leaders believe is an opportunity to revive the peace process in the Middle East and lay the groundwork for Israel and a Palestinian state to live side by side without bloodshed.
Gaza withdrawal reconsidered
In a policy shift, an Israeli official indicated that the Jewish state was reassessing its policy on its plan to pull troops and 8,800 Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel would be willing to coordinate a planned withdrawal from Gaza if the Palestinian Authority cracks down on militant groups.
Prior to Arafat’s death, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had insisted that withdrawals be “unilateral.” Sharon had blamed Arafat for the violence and refused to negotiate with him.
Israeli and Palestinian officials alike have expressed fears that an evacuation from Gaza without coordination would bring chaos to the Gaza Strip, where militant groups have been vying for control in recent months.
Those rivalries burst into the open minutes after Abbas entered the Gaza City mourning tent, where about 10,000 people — including about 3,000 armed men, most of them police officers — gathered Sunday evening. Abbas, accompanied by Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan and surrounded by security guards, shook hands with mourners.
Palestinian factions feud
Moments later, at least 20 gunmen, their assault rifles held high, barged into the tent, shouting “Abbas and Dahlan are agents for the Americans.” Abbas’ bodyguards hustled him into a corner as frightened mourners scrambled over plastic chairs. Abbas was taken to Palestinian headquarters.
Abbas later said he planned to continue talks with rival Palestinian factions. Abbas tried in the past, as prime minister, to persuade militants to halt attacks on Israel, and he succeeded briefly.
Militants signaled Sunday that they are not interested in a new cease-fire. In a parade in Gaza City, masked militants from Fatah unveiled a new rocket, which they claimed had an extended range that could reach the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. The long, green “Al-Yasser 1” rocket, named after Arafat, was shown to a cheering crowd, as Palestinian security forces looked on.
Adding to the uncertainty, Israel renewed an order that Palestinian police in the West Bank will not be allowed to carry arms. The ban had been briefly lifted in the city of Ramallah during Arafat’s funeral but was re-imposed Monday.
The Israeli army has prevented Palestinian security from carrying weapons in the West Bank since a major military operation in the West Bank in 2002, in response to a series of suicide bombings. The Palestinian Authority says the ban has made it difficult to maintain order.
Sunday’s shooting, meanwhile, raised questions about the ability of the Palestinians to carry out their Jan. 9 election peacefully.
Abbas, 69, is widely expected to run for Palestinian Authority president. However, none of the likely candidates, including Abbas, has the stature of Arafat, and many Palestinians consider Abbas’ generation of politicians to be tainted by corruption and out of touch with the masses.
Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian uprising who is now in an Israeli jail, also plans to run, according to a person close to Barghouti. In recent opinion polls, Barghouti emerged as the most popular politician after Arafat.
The largest opposition group, Hamas, is also considering whether to field a candidate.