GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – About 100 masked militants stormed the heavily guarded home of Gaza's former security chief early Wednesday, dragged him out in his pajamas and killed him in a burst of gunfire — a brazen challenge to the Palestinian Authority (search) days before Israel was to hand over the Gaza Strip.
The fighting with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles raged just a block from the headquarters of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service (search). The gunmen also kidnapped Arafat's oldest son, Manhal.
The Popular Resistance Committees (search), a violent group made up largely of former members of the Fatah (search) movement of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search), later claimed responsibility. The group said it killed Arafat to punish him for alleged corruption after the Palestinian security forces had taken no action against him.
"We have implemented God's law," a spokesman, Mohammed Abdel Al, told The Associated Press.
Palestinian officials said the killing was an attack on the government.
"He was a symbol of the authority," Palestinian Cabinet Minister Sufian Abu Zeideh told Israel Army Radio.
Abbas said he would track down the killers — a pledge immediately put to the test by the bold claim of responsibility. Abdel Al said his group would resist arrest or any attempt to be disarmed. Abbas had said just a few days ago he would try to bring renegade Fatah fighters under control within three weeks.
The killing heightened concerns that Abbas will not be able to restore order in the increasingly lawless coastal strip where armed gangs control the streets. Palestinian officials said they viewed the killing as an attack on the government. Abbas convened his top security officials and Palestinian security forces were put on high alert.
"This is a very dangerous act," said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search). "They targeted one of the Palestinian security leaders."
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom (search) said the killing was a test for Abbas, who is widely known as Abu Mazen.
"Abu Mazen has to wake up and make the correct strategic decision to collect the illegal weapons and dismantle the terror groups," he told Israel Radio.
Abbas has shied away from confrontation with the militants, and instead tried to coopt them, by offering them political participation and jobs in the security forces.
The Popular Resistance Committees is a group made up mostly of former Fatah members, but also includes militants from the Hamas (search) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (search) groups. It has taken responsibility for numerous deadly attacks on Israelis.
Members of the group were also arrested by Palestinian police for alleged connection to a bombing against an American diplomatic convoy in 2003 that killed three Americans. Some were later released for lack of evidence, and others were sprung from Gaza's central jail by fellow militants.
Abbas fired Arafat, who had many enemies and was the target of frequent corruption allegations, several months ago as part of government reforms.
Abdel Al, the spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, said Arafat "was responsible for killing, stealing and blackmail."
"Now we have huge files about corrupt deals by Arafat and his son, Manhal, who is being interrogated and confessed to some of these corrupt deals," Abdel Al said.
Manhal Arafat is a senior security official.
In the military-style attack on Arafat, about 100 gunmen overpowered dozens of bodyguards patrolling outside his four-story home in an upscale Gaza City neighborhood. The attackers blew the iron gate off its hinges and tied up the bodyguards after a 30-minute gunbattle, Abdel Al said.
After the attack, Arafat was dragged outside and shot in the sandy street.
Palestinian police said three bodyguards were initially kidnapped, along with Manhal Arafat, but were later released. One bodyguard was shot in the leg.
Residents said they heard more than two dozen loud explosions. The headquarters of the Preventive Security Service is just a block away, but security agents did not intervene. The security forces might have mistaken the shooting for one of the routine nightly training exercises militants stage in the area.
Reporters touring the scene of Wednesday's killing were not permitted inside Arafat's house. There were drops of blood in the sandy street outside, but the house's facade appeared undamaged.
Arafat was a founder of the ruling Fatah movement and was a senior official in the Fatah Revolutionary Council (search), a top policy-making body. After being fired as security chief, he was given the considerably less-influential job of military adviser to Abbas.
Arafat was a target of previous assassination attempts and always traveled in a heavily guarded convoy, using an armored limousine that once transported Yasser Arafat.
Israeli Cabinet ministers, meanwhile, approved new arrangements at the Gaza-Egypt border, and raised the possibility it would eventually agree to the movement of Palestinians in and out of Gaza under the supervision of foreign inspectors, without an Israeli presence. The plan still awaits full approval by the Israeli Cabinet next week.
Palestinians were not immediately available for comment. They have insisted on a firm commitment from Israel to allow unfettered movement through the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt after Israeli troops leave the Gaza Strip next week. It was not immediately clear whether they would accept the plan adopted Wednesday.
The Cabinet ministers decided that Israel would leave a narrow military patrol road on the Gaza-Egypt border next week, along with the withdrawal of soldiers from Gaza. After the pullout, Israel will no longer have a presence at Rafah.
Israel proposed that Rafah be closed for six months. During that period, Palestinian travelers and goods would move through two alternate, Israeli-controlled crossings. After six months, Rafah could reopen, Shalom said, and he raised the possibility that foreign inspectors could be deployed at Rafah, in line with long-standing demands by the Palestinians and the international community.
"If we would want at a later time to permit the entry and exit from Rafah to Egypt, and smoothly, we would want a third party there. There is no doubt that the Europeans are very interested to be the third party," Shalom told Israel Radio.