Violence Plagues Gaza After Israeli Pullout

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas meets President Bush Thursday for the first time since Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last month. Gaza has grown more chaotic since the Israeli pullout, and Abbas is under pressure from both Israel and Washington to impose order.

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President Bush is meeting now with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the White House. It is Abbas' first meeting with Mr. Bush since Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last month with Gaza last month, which has grown evermore chaotic. And Abbas is under pressure from both Israel and Washington to impose law and order. NPR's Ivan Watson reports.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

The campus of Al Azhar University in Gaza stands empty. This university was closed last week after a mob of about 50 students, some of them armed, stormed the office of the university president and dragged him and at least one of his aides out into the street where they publicly humiliated them for expelling another group of students. This all took place within a block of the Palestinian police headquarters. At the gates of the empty university, this furious campus guard who called himself Mohammad Hassan(ph) said enough was enough.

Mr. MOHAMMAD HASSAN (Al Azhar University Guard): Big, big confusion. There is big confusion in Gaza Strip. There is no law, no security. No security in Gaza Strip.

WATSON: A top university official, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, said what happened here is a reflection of the rising power of militants in Palestinian society. Gaza has also been hit by a rash of kidnappings with hostage takers demanding ransoms or sometimes government jobs in exchange for the release of their victims. Though some of these kidnappers are well-known, Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfik Abu Khoussa says no arrests have yet been made.

Mr. TAWFIK ABU KHOUSSA (Palestinian Interior Ministry Spokesman): (Through Translator) These people make everything in order. Why? Because the authority is weak.

WATSON: Abu Khoussa says members of the militant Islamist group Hamas recently opened fire on his house, but the Palestinian Authority, he added, has been unable to arrest any of those responsible. Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar rejects the accusations.

Mr. MAHMOUD ZAHAR (Hamas Leader): He's a big liar.

WATSON: Zahar and other Hamas leaders have taken credit for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, saying it was the Hamas-led resistance, not the peace process, that prompted the Israeli pullout. Hamas is in fierce competition with the ruling Fatah party ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for January. Zahar says the growing instability in Gaza is a legacy of Mahmoud Abbas' predecessor Yasser Arafat.

Mr. ZAHAR: This is the end result of the previous era. The multiple factions inside Fatah, the multiple security sections, the different personal interest.

WATSON: Amid the ongoing Palestinian power struggle, there has also been an upsurge of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the West Bank. Israeli troops have staged almost daily raids in search of militant leaders. Last Sunday, Palestinian gunmen killed three Israelis at a bus stop near a Jewish settlement prompting Israel to put up new roadblocks and ban Palestinian cars from traveling on West Bank highways. Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar expects more clashes in the future.

Mr. ZAHAR: The only option for the people in West Bank and (unintelligible) is to run military activities.

WATSON: As a result of Sunday's attacks, Israel also temporarily suspended most contacts with the Palestinian Authority. Aides to Mahmoud Abbas say during today's meeting in Washington, the Palestinian leader will urge President Bush to press Israel to release Palestinian prisoners and freeze the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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