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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 January 2006, 03:06 GMT
Gaza's spiral into anarchy
By Alan Johnston
BBC correspondent, Gaza

Militants occupy a Gaza election office
Sudden protests have sprung up regularly in Gaza
Campaigning is under way in the first Palestinian parliamentary election for 10 years. But the talk in Gaza is not so much of issues and policies and the prospects for parties.

The focus is more on chronic law and order problems and whether the polls will be held at all.

Foreigners have been kidnapped. And every day there are angry anti-government protests. Public buildings are stormed as armed demonstrators demand jobs, or sometimes the release of prisoners.

There have been attacks on police stations, clan feuds and clashes between militia groups.

All this has to be kept in context. Much of the upheaval has been confined to the south, and to the town of Rafah in particular - and much of the turmoil has about it an element of show.

There have been few casualties, and very little serious, sustained violence. Protesting gunmen who occupy government buildings often leave as soon as they have made their point.

Everyone now suspects that this is planned chaos... planned to disrupt the elections
Dr Eyad El Surraj
Independent parliamentary candidate
But the disturbances are more frequent now, and they are generating a sense of insecurity that deeply disturbs people here.

The chaos has its roots in many problems.

This society has been radicalised and traumatised by its confrontation with the Israelis, who occupied Gaza decades ago and only evacuated their settlers and troops last summer.

Thousands of Palestinians have been killed, injured or lost their homes during years of violence.

There are numerous armed factions that used to channel their violent energies into attacks on the Israelis - but they now have little on which to focus.

In this broken, crowded, poverty-stricken place there is an intense struggle for resources that can lead to lawlessness. A number of the kidnappings have been carried out by militia groups demanding jobs in the formal security agencies.

Power tangle

The best of governments would struggle to run Gaza. And the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, does not have the best of governments.

His ruling Fatah party is riven by infighting. It is a mess of competing power centres. And inevitably Fatah's lack of cohesion and centralised control is reflected in the working of the government it runs - the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Activists paint election slogans on Gaza walls
Electioneering is taking place despite poverty-stricken lawlessness

"There is a disintegration in our situation here," says the independent election candidate, Dr Eyad El Surraj.

"There is a disintegration of the Palestinian Authority and its forces, which is a symptom of the disintegration of Fatah itself. There is no decision-making process. There is no leadership."

Nowhere are the PA's failings more painfully apparent than in the security field.

It is true that the numerous different security forces have been battered by Israeli assaults over the years.

But the various forces have also suffered from a lack of coordination and solid command. Rivalries between different units can be intense. In an incident last year one force ambushed another, and there was a shoot-out in Gaza City's main street.

The occupation was not as bad as the lawlessness and corruption that we are now facing
Hafiz Barghouti
Newspaper editor
Clans and militia groups are often ready to confront the police and military, and often the agencies of law and order back off and fail to make arrests.

Part of the problem is the degree to which the security forces and the armed groups that they ought to be controlling actually merge into one another.

International experts studying the security sector last year concluded: "Clan and family affiliations remain strong and challenge official loyalties. Affiliations with militia factions also obscure loyalties and give rise to divisions.

"Many troops and officers belong simultaneously to the armed forces and the militias originating from Fatah."

Deliberate lawlessness?

And those links create suspicions that the current upsurge in unrest has political overtones.

Fatah's main opponent, the Hamas organisation, suspects that elements in the political establishment are deliberately creating tension ahead of the election.

Fatah is facing its first parliamentary electoral challenge from Hamas in the current campaign. And Hamas clearly believes that some in Fatah fear they will lose out badly and are looking for an excuse to call off the election.

Hamas members campaign in Gaza
Some believe Hamas has Fatah on the run
Dr El Surraj shares Hamas's suspicions.

"Some of the Fatah central command believe that they are losing their chance to stay in power and they don't want to relinquish that power to other parties - and this is particularly evident when you see all these signs of chaos.

"Everyone now suspects that this is planned chaos," said Dr El Surraj. "This is planned violation of the rule of law - planned to disrupt the elections."

Fatah, however, insists that it is in fact determined to enforce the law. In his New Year address, Mr Abbas again talked of the need to impose order in Gaza as a priority.

And the Fatah candidate, and the PA's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, has said that people understand that his party called the election as way to restore the rule of law.

But there is now a growing appreciation of the depth of the malaise in Palestinian society

Hafiz Barghouti, the editor of the newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadeed, has written: "It appears we are neither prepared to change, nor admit that we have failed in running our own affairs. Everyone is busy calculating how to make the biggest possible gains at the homeland's expense.

"While most Palestinians find it easy to blame the occupation for all our ills, it is a fact that the occupation was not as bad as the lawlessness and corruption that we are now facing."

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