Page last updated at 10:40 GMT, Saturday, 31 December 2005

Gaza kidnaps 'not driven by hatred'

Police guard Gaza's American school after teachers were kidnapped
Two teachers from the American school were kidnapped recently

The kidnap of a British aid worker and her parents in Gaza was one of around a dozen seen there in the last year.

It is not an unusual event and rarely leads to hostages being harmed, says an expert in the region.

Palestinian-Israeli conflict expert Dr John Strawson, a reader in law at Birzeit University on the West Bank, says abductions are usually driven by a desire to embarrass the authorities rather than by a hatred of foreigners.

Kate Burton and her parents were snatched by gunmen near the southern Rafah crossing in Gaza, and were released three days later.

The kidnapping came just one week after two other Westerners were abducted in the "chaotic" territory.

Palestinian society is traditionally much more open to outsiders
Dr John Strawson, Birzeit University, West Bank

After two teachers at an American school - one Australian and one Dutch - were kidnapped, the UK Foreign Office tightened its travel advice.

It "strongly advised" British nationals against all travel to the region.

The teachers were later released.

Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in August, President Mahmoud Abbas has been struggling to maintain law and order.

Rival gangs occupy the streets and foreigners are snatched to blackmail the government, but are generally released unharmed.

"Unlike in Iraq, the kidnappings are not so much aimed at the foreigners themselves as at embarrassing Mahmoud Abbas and trying to show he has no control over the Gaza Strip," said Dr Strawson.

Map of the Gaza Strip

"There is complete chaos in Gaza with a total breakdown of the Palestinian authorities' control."

He said the main aim was to demonstrate that no-one was safe.

"Palestinian society is traditionally much more open to outsiders.

"There are large numbers of Britons and other Westerners living in the Palestinian territories for NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and that kind of thing.

"It's not that foreigners are regarded as a terrible danger, contaminating society, like in Afghanistan for instance. They are seen rather differently."

Different to Iraq

It was no coincidence that the kidnapping came the day after a Palestinian court agreed that the ruling party Fatah could submit a unified list of candidates for forthcoming elections, added Dr Strawson.

"That will annoy factions both in the PLO and Hamas," he said.

"It may well be that people associated with the radical wing of the PLO are trying to teach Abbas a lesson."

He said two sets of kidnappings in a week was "interesting".

Dr Strawson said: "We are seeing a stepping up of this activity, but I suspect it is still something quite different to what is happening in Iraq."

Other foreigners have been kidnapped - often by small disaffected militia groups - to be used as bargaining chips to get relatives released from Palestinian prisons, secure jobs from the Palestinian Authority or settle personal scores.

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