GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, AP -Palestinian security forces freed the latest Western kidnap victim in Gaza after a shootout, but increasing chaos threatened parliamentary elections set for later this month in the West Bank and Gaza.
In a rare show of force on Sunday, Palestinian police exchanged gunfire with kidnappers before rescuing an Italian hostage kidnapped a few hours earlier. However, the kidnappers escaped.
Kidnappings, shootouts and other mayhem have embarrassed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and threaten to undermine his Fatah Party in the Jan. 25 vote — benefiting the militant Islamic Hamas.
Violence continued before dawn Monday when Israeli fighter jets struck roads in northern Gaza used by Palestinian militants to access rocket-launching sites, the army said.
The jets also hit an unoccupied building near the town of Khan Younis used by Palestinian militants, the army said. No injuries were reported in either attack.
On Sunday, Palestinian militants fired three rockets at Israel, the military said. No damage or casualties were reported, and the army said the rockets were not fired from an area that Israel last week declared off limits to Palestinians to prevent the launchings. Israel responded with an artillery barrage.
The Italian man, identified as Alessandro Bernardini, was abducted early Sunday in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis. Bernardini, an aide in the European parliament, was traveling on a minibus with a delegation that included two EU lawmakers. Armed men stopped the vehicle, forced him out and sped away with him.
After a four-hour search, Palestinian security forces burst into a Khan Younis building with guns blazing and freed Bernardini.
“We stormed the place after we surrounded it. We broke in and succeeded to release the hostage safely,” said Col. Atef Ilyan of the Palestinian preventive security service.
Bernardini later told reporters that he was treated well in captivity, receiving tea and cigarettes, and that he remained committed to the Palestinian cause. “I’m not going to change my ideas about the Palestinians,” he said.
However, EU lawmaker Luisa Morgantini, a longtime pro-Palestinian activist, said the incident was bad for the Palestinians. “I am very sorry for the Palestinians, because their struggle should not be led like that,” she said.
There was no claim of responsibility. but a security official in Khan Younis said it was carried out by a small, radical group affiliated with the ruling Fatah.
Security officials have also blamed Fatah-linked radicals for last week’s kidnapping of a British aid worker and her parents. The Britons were freed Friday after two days in captivity.
Palestinian security has rarely used force, preferring to end the standoffs through negotiations. Critics say Abbas’ hands-off approach has encouraged more abductions.
Virtually all of the violence has been carried out by elements within Fatah. The chaos appears to stem from disarray within Fatah, which faces a strong challenge from Hamas in the parliamentary election.
Several top Fatah officials have urged Abbas to delay the election. “An end has to be put to these incidents and only then can the elections be held,” Cabinet minister Sufian Abu Zaida told Israel’s Channel 2 TV.
With Abbas rejecting such calls, some elements within Fatah, fearing a Hamas victory, appear to be trying to sabotage the election through force.
In recent weeks, Fatah-linked gunmen in two West Bank cities have threatened to raid ballot boxes on election day. And after releasing the British hostages Friday night, their kidnappers threatened to abduct European observers planning on monitoring the election.
Despite the chaos, Fatah is maintaining its lead over Hamas, according to a poll published Sunday.
Fatah would capture 43 percent of the vote and Hamas 25 percent, according to the survey by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. The poll questioned 4,500 Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and had a margin of error of two percentage points.
A Shikaki poll in mid-December showed that Fatah would get 50 percent and Hamas 32 percent.