JERUSALEM (AP) – Dozens of gunmen, including off-duty policemen, halted traffic on two major roads in the Gaza Strip for more than an hour Saturday, in the latest sign of chaos gripping the area ahead of Jan. 25 Palestinian elections.
With the violence bolstering Hamas’ prospects in the legislative election, U.S. officials warned that millions of dollars of aid could be in jeopardy if the Islamic group joins the Palestinian government.
In Saturday’s unrest, the protesters blocked the two main north-south roads in Gaza, demanding retribution for the killing of a policeman in a drug bust a week ago.
The protesters, who included relatives and former colleagues of the dead officer, urged Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, to impose order in Gaza. They also called for the resignation of Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, who oversees Palestinian security.
“This is a first step and a message to Abu Mazen … we ask him to use the force of law … and arrest the killers and execute them,”
said a spokesman for the gunmen, identifying himself as Abu Wasfi.
The gunmen opened the roads after about an hour. Abbas has called for an end to the lawlessness, but with his security forces weakened by internal divisions and fighting with Israel, has been unable to restore order.
Their ineffectiveness is driving voters away from Abbas’ Fatah Party and toward Hamas, which is running on a platform calling for clean government.
The plainclothes officers said they are members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militant group linked Fatah. Al Aqsa was set up shortly after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, and was largely controlled by the late Yasser Arafat. Many of the recruits were members of the Fatah and the security forces.
Brazen Al Aqsa gangs have been responsible for much of the recent violence in Gaza, including abductions of foreigners and shootouts in the streets, demanding government jobs and other favors as a payoff for fighting Israel.
Some in Fatah have urged Abbas to cancel the election until law and order is restored. Abbas has rejected the calls, saying a postponement would only intensify the chaos.
Opinion polls show Hamas in a close race with Fatah. Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction and has been labeled a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
A U.S. official said Saturday that Washington would have to review its aid to the Palestinians if Hamas joins their government. President George W. Bush requested $350 million (¤291 million) for the Palestinians last year. The official said that under anti-terrorism laws, the U.S. would have to make sure that no aid to the Palestinians falls into the wrong hands. Two visiting U.S. envoys relayed the message to Abbas on Friday. The official was not authorized to discuss the issue with the media and could not be identified.
The U.S. has given few details about how it would deal with a Palestinian leadership that has strong Hamas representation.
U. S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week that “there should be no place in the political process for groups or individuals who refuse to renounce terror and violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and disarm.”
Hamas’ election platform has focused primarily on internal Palestinian issues, like cleaning up government corruption and restoring law and order, though it also refers to the right to “resistance” against Israel.
Mushir Masri, a spokesman for the group in Gaza, said the U.S. comments reflect recognition that Hamas will be a political force in Palestinian affairs. “The world is dealing with a new reality, that Hamas is part of Palestinian reality and decision-making,” he said.