Gunmen opened fire at a convoy carrying the deputy Palestinian intelligence chief on Wednesday, seriously wounding him in the chest and killing two bodyguards, Palestinian officials said.

The shooting was the latest unrest in Gaza, which has seen a wave of kidnappings, protests and other violence over the past month.

The violence has been linked to growing criticism of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search), as well as a power struggle among rival Palestinian factions ahead of a planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza next year.

The Palestinian officer, Tareq Abu Rajab (search), was traveling in a two-vehicle convoy in northern Gaza City when shots rang out, witnesses said. One of the vehicles flipped over.

Palestinian hospital officials said two bodyguards were killed in the shooting, and two others were wounded. Officials said that Abu Rajab would be transferred to an Israeli hospital with better facilities.

There was no immediate word on who carried out the shooting. Security officials said they had opened an investigation.

Rajab, who keeps a low public profile, is an old ally of Arafat. Most recently, he had been in charge of security for Palestinian diplomatic missions abroad, officials said.

Last month, Palestinians security officials declared a state of emergency in Gaza following a spate of kidnappings of Palestinian officials and French citizens. The hostages were all released within hours unharmed.

The turmoil has also trickled to the West Bank, where a growing number of Palestinians have begun to voice criticism of Arafat's corruption-plagued regime and demanded reforms. In one instance, a Palestinian lawmaker who is a well-known critic of Arafat was shot in the leg by unknown gunmen.

The unrest prompted Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) to briefly resign. He withdrew the resignation after Arafat pledged to carry out reforms.

On Wednesday, the Palestinian legislature was meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah to discuss Arafat's pledges. Last week, Arafat promised to clean up his government, but offered few details on how he plans to do so.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to withdraw from Gaza next year, saying that Israel's continued presence in the area is unsustainable. Some 8,000 Israeli settlers live in the volatile strip, which is home to 1.3 million Palestinians.

On Tuesday, Israel's defense minister said that military plans for carrying out the withdrawal will be ready next month, reflecting the resolve of Israel's government to forge ahead with the pullout despite internal opposition.

Sharon's Likud Party (search) has already voted against the plan twice — in a nonbinding referendum on May 2 and indirectly in a party convention last week.

Sharon lost his parliamentary majority in the process, but he has said he is determined to carry out the plan.

The convention voted to ban Sharon from adding the moderate Labor Party to his Cabinet — a move that would guarantee a majority for the pullout, since Labor favors far-reaching territorial concessions for peace. Despite the party rebuke, Sharon said he would go ahead with efforts to bolster his ruling coalition.

In new violence, the Israeli army said it had opened fire at five armed men in the northern Gaza Strip, killing one Palestinian militant.

Palestinian officials had no information on the incident, which occurred in the northern town of Beit Hanoun.