GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The Palestinian government called a state of emergency Saturday and summoned the Cabinet for an urgent meeting as the Gaza Strip (search) slid into chaos, after gunmen kidnapped two security officials and four French volunteers.
The wave of abductions prompted two senior security officials in the Palestinian Authority to quit, although their resignations were rejected by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search).
"This is a true disaster," Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said Saturday outside his offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah, shortly before meeting with Arafat. "This is a level of chaos that we have never seen before."
The four French citizens, who were working on an electrical project in the southern city of Khan Younis, were later released unharmed. The gunmen said they acted to draw world attention to Palestinian suffering caused by Israel's occupation.
The rapid series of developments reflected the growing tension by militant groups and individuals seeking to strengthen their positions before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) fulfills his pledge to withdraw Israeli forces and some 7,500 settlers from Gaza late next year.
The events also represented a serious challenge to the Palestinian leadership, including Yasser Arafat, who has been criticized by militants for blocking reform and turning a blind eye to corruption.
The crisis appeared to be racing toward a breaking point, with one Palestinian official predicting the government meeting could be the last for Qureia's government. A security panel headed by Arafat declared the state of emergency after midnight.
The French Foreign Ministry said the French citizens had been in Gaza for several days working on an electricity project set up by an association of Evry-Palestine. Evry is a poor suburb of Paris largely inhabited by Middle Eastern immigrants.
The four were kidnapped while drinking coffee at a cafe in Khan Younis and held them at the offices of the Red Crescent Society there.
The two Palestinian security officials who offered to resign were the head of the Palestinian intelligence service, Maj. Gen. Amin al Hindi, and the head of Preventive Security in the Gaza Strip, Rashid Abu Shbak -- both well known figures in the Palestinian hierarchy.
A Palestinian official said the Palestinian government would meet early Saturday to discuss the resignations, and the situation in Gaza. That official said it could be Qureia's last meeting.
The apparent challenge to Qureia comes as Arafat attempts to fend off criticism from some Palestinian officials, unhappy about the pace of government reform and the persistence of corruption in the Palestinian Authority.
Qureia replaced Mahmoud Abbas in September 2003, but for most of his time in office has languished in Arafat's shadow. Abbas resigned after four months complaining he was hamstrung by Arafat.
The spate of Gaza kidnappings began around midday Friday when gunmen abducted Palestinian Chief of Police Ghazi Jabali after attacking his vehicle in a highway ambush, wounding two of his bodyguards.
Witnesses said the militants pulled Jabali out and sped off in the direction of the Bureij Refugee Camp. He was released hours later after negotiations between the kidnappers and officials of Arafat's administration.
A group from the little-known Jenin Martyrs Brigade claimed responsibility for the abduction. But other militants said the gunmen were members of a militia that Jabali himself had created to back his bid for power after the Israelis leave Gaza.
The militants may have been angry about not getting jobs with the security forces.
Younger militants have been carrying out suicide attacks against Israelis and bearing the brunt of Israeli retaliatory strikes, and they now are seeking more prominent roles in Palestinian security organizations.
Several new militant organizations have appeared in Gaza, many of them grouped under the umbrella of the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committee. The committee, which has no clear political agenda or ideology, was pressing for more jobs in the police force for its members.
Shortly after Jabali's release Col. Khaled Abu Aloula, Director of Military Coordination in the southern part of the territory was taken from his car as he returned to Gaza City from Khan Younis.
Palestinian security officials said the kidnappers were Palestinian policemen who had recently been fired from their jobs. The officials said that earlier in the day Aloula had refused their request to help reinstate them.
In a brief telephone conversation with The Associated Press later Friday, Aloula said he was being well treated. He was released Saturday morning unharmed after being detained for 16 hours.