The Palestinian interior minister quit on Monday in the midst of a sharply deteriorating security situation in the Gaza Strip, prompting officials in the territory to predict worse internal chaos ahead.
Hani Qawasmi attacked both sides in the Hamas-Fatah power-sharing government for hindering his plans to end lawlessness in Gaza. “From the beginning, I faced obstacles that robbed the ministry of its powers and made my position empty without authority,” he said.
His departure came after six people were killed and 52 wounded in street battles since the weekend, the worst factional violence since the two main parties agreed in Mecca in February to share power in order to avert a civil war.
“With the resignation of the minister, I think the situation may get even worse,” said an official of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. “There’s no functioning in the security chain of command. He should have been given full authority, according to the law.”
Mr Qawasmi, a non-aligned former judge, was appointed to the Palestinian Authority’s most contentious ministerial post with the backing of Ismail Haniya, Hamas prime minister, and the agreement of Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s Fatah president.
He was, however, unable to overcome rivalries both within and between the PA’s various security branches in order to implement a security plan that would have integrated Fatah and Hamas personnel in the same units.
“Added to that is the lack of control over militant groups and internal factional disputes involving extremists who don’t accept the Mecca agreement,” said the human rights official, who asked not to be named.
In the latest violence, militants kidnapped members of rival factions and, according to Hamas, a journalist from a pro-Hamas newspaper was dragged from his car and shot.
Fatah loyalists, however, blamed Hamas for provoking the latest unrest as a means of ousting Mr Qawasmi and placing the interior ministry portfolio, which was Monday assumed by Mr Haniya, in its own hands.
Aside from the security chaos, people in Gaza said they were concerned about a growing trend towards Islamic extremism in the territory – what one described as the “al-Qaedaisation” of the conflict.
In a general atmosphere of lawlessness, previously unknown groups have attacked secular schools, internet cafés and other targets identified with foreign or non-Islamic influence.
One local analyst dismissed the theory that either Fatah or Hamas were stirring up extremism to serve their own interests. Some observers have speculated that Hamas, in particular, was using the Islamist attacks to signal to the west and Israel that it posed less of a threat than more extreme jihadist groups that might displace it.
Al-Qaeda reinforced that perception recently with a statement from Yahya al-Libi, its Afghanistan-based leader, accusing Hamas of “betraying its own martyrs and God” by abandoning jihad in favour of politics.
However, the Gaza analyst said that, although there was no evidence of a foreign al-Qaeda presence in Gaza, Hamas officials had privately expressed concern that the chaos in the territory might expose even some of their own members to jihadist influences.
A Gazan businesswoman, who asked to remain anonymous, said Monday: “There are criminals and drugs mixed up with politics and it’s impossible to say what the big picture is. Economically things get worse every day while the security situation is a mess. Today a man was shot dead outside the door of my shop. And neither Abbas nor Haniya bothers to tell us what’s going on.”
The mood of uncertainty has been heightened by the flight of foreigners, including aid workers, since the abduction two months ago of Alan Johnston, the BBC’s Gaza correspondent, by a group that since identified itself on an al-Qaeda-linked website as the Army of Islam.
“Everyone knows exactly where Johnston is,” said the businesswoman, reflecting a common belief in Gaza, “but the authorities know it would be too dangerous to try to free him.”