Palestinian leaders condemned the pre-dawn assassination of the former head of the Gaza Strip's general security agency Wednesday, pledging to capture his killers to demonstrate that the elected government is in control of this coastal region.
Moussa Arafat, a cousin of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was dragged from his three-story home here by more than a dozen gunmen shortly before 5 a.m. and shot in the street. His son, Manhal, a major in the Palestinian military intelligence service, was kidnapped. Three bodyguards were also taken from the house but were soon released unharmed.
Hours later, the Popular Resistance Committees, a faction comprising disaffected members of various Palestinian parties, asserted responsibility for the assassination, carried out less than half a mile from the Palestinian Authority's fortified presidential compound.
Moussa Arafat, a founding member of the ruling Fatah movement, had a reputation for corruption that made him unpopular among many Palestinian factions, including his own. He held the rank of minister and served as military affairs adviser to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The position was a symbolic one that Arafat held after being fired as head of Gaza's general security agency in April.
The brazen nature of Arafat's killing turned it into an awkward test of Abbas's ability to confront the armed Palestinian groups struggling for political control of Gaza. Although Arafat's notorious reputation made his death unlikely to cause conflict among the factions, Palestinian security services could face resistance in moving to capture his killers.
"The way this was carried out underlines a very strong message, even if that message may not have been intended," said Ziad Abu Amr, an independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council who often serves as a mediator among Palestinian factions. "It points out the chronic failure of the Palestinian Authority to establish law and order in Gaza and the price it is now paying for past decisions not to do so."
Information Minister Nabil Shaath suggested that the assassination was timed to raise doubts about the Palestinian Authority's ability to maintain order in Gaza after Israel's withdrawal of troops and residents from all 21 Jewish settlements in the strip. "We are saying that we can take responsibility," Shaath told reporters here. "We will take all the steps necessary, and I don't think there is any doubt in anyone's mind: This is not political resistance to the occupation. This is a crime by any definition -- no justifications, no pretext."
Moussa Arafat, who was in his sixties, was a senior member of the important Fatah Revolutionary Council. The committee guides the secular nationalist movement whose members fill out the ranks of the Palestinian Authority.
But he had also become a symbol to young Fatah members of the cronyism and corruption they say has permeated the movement's ranks since the 1993 Oslo accords brought a measure of self-government to the territories Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war.
Arafat's appointment last year to head Gaza's general security agency triggered an uprising in the streets here by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Fatah's armed wing, whose young leaders had been calling for sweeping changes inside the Palestinian Authority. Yasser Arafat backtracked days after the uprising, placing his cousin under the head of security for all of the Palestinian territories.
A few months later, a car bomb exploded near Moussa Arafat's passing convoy here in what was at least the second time he had been targeted for assassination. He emerged unharmed.
The Popular Resistance Committees, one of the smaller Palestinian factions, coalesced shortly after the Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000. Most of its members once belonged to Fatah, although it has moved increasingly close to the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, in recent years. Israeli officials said Wednesday that they had received information that senior Hamas activists provided military support for Arafat's assassination.
One of the Popular Resistance Committees' two armed wings, the Salaheddin Brigades, asserted responsibility for the raid in phone calls to Arab media outlets here. A statement described Moussa Arafat as a "collaborator," a term used to describe Palestinians who assist Israeli intelligence services. Witnesses said the gunmen fired repeatedly into Arafat's body after he was dead and ran over his corpse with their car.
"He was one of the heads of the corruption, and his poison spread among the Palestinian people," said a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees who identified himself as Abu Abeer. "We're going to deal with his son according to the results of the investigation we are conducting."
Some Palestinian officials said that while Arafat's killing would not spark violence between Palestinian factions, it could lead to confrontations between the security services and militant groups that might defend those who carried out the assassination.
"This is a very dangerous incident and has very dangerous implications inside Palestine," Abdullah Frangi, head of the Fatah Mobilization Organization, told reporters here. "If you look at what happened in a responsible way, all of us are responsible. All of us should now be united to solve this matter."