Released British hostage will continue helping Palestinians
JERUSALEM – A British human rights activist released by Gaza kidnappers said Saturday she would stay in the region despite threats by militants to seize more foreigners, as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas warned the growing lawlessness is hurting economic development and statehood aspirations.Abbas also said the chaos would not derail parliament elections set for Jan. 25.However, the Palestinian leader has been unable to impose order, particularly in Gaza, where dozens of armed groups affiliated with his Fatah Party have seized hostages, stormed public buildings and attacked police stations in recent months – either to press demands for government jobs or to settle personal feuds.In one incident Saturday, gunmen demanding jobs briefly seized a government building in the central Gaza town of Deir el Balah. Another group of armed men, including off-duty police, set up an impromptu roadblock near the Gaza-Egypt border, threatening to prevent VIPs from crossing, as part of a fight between police and a local clan.Late Saturday, two Palestinians were killed in an Israeli air strike in northern Gaza, Palestinians officials said, the first deadly attack there since Israel declared a “no-go” zone on Sunday to try to stop Palestinian rocket barrages. Israel began enforcing the ban on Wednesday.Relatives said the two were members of the same family, and one was with Palestinian security. The Israeli military said the air force hit a cell of Palestinians preparing to fire a rocket.The Palestinian Interior Ministry issued a statement condemning the Israeli strike, saying a shell hit a Palestinian post, hindering police efforts to stop militants from firing a rocket at Israel.Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri, talking to reporters at the hospital where the casualties were taken, threatened revenge against Israel. However, he did not rule out extending a truce declared in February. The truce formally expires at the end of the year, Saturday night.Briton Kate Burton, 25, and her parents, Hugh and Helen, were freed in Gaza late Friday. In a statement issued Saturday, the Burtons said they were treated “extremely well” during their ordeal, and they asked to be “left in peace to recover with close friends and relatives.”Hugh and Helen Burton were to leave for Europe over the weekend, British officials said.Kate Burton said she “plans to stay in the region and continue working with the Palestinian people.” She is expected to return to Gaza within several days to resume working for the group Al-Mezan, said its head, Kamal Sharafi.The Burtons’ abduction was the latest in a rash of kidnappings of foreigners by Palestinian gunmen.Palestinian security officials said the Burtons were abducted by gunmen with ties to Fatah. The kidnappers said they were members of a previously unknown group, the Mujahedeen Brigades Jerusalem Branch.The group threatened more abductions of foreigners if Israel does not abolish its “no-go” zone in the northern Gaza Strip. Israel imposed the off-limits area this week to prevent rocket fire and has threatened to shoot anyone entering the zone.The kidnappers said they released the hostages after receiving assurances that Britain and the European Union would seek an end to the Israeli buffer zone. British officials denied that a deal was struck.The kidnappers said they would seize international election observers if their demands were not met. Mathias Eick, a spokesman for the observers, said Saturday the group did not plan to change its deployment ahead of the parliament election, but would keep assessing the risk.Abbas said the lawlessness is hurting the Palestinians and hampering economic development.”The chaos and security lapses create fertile ground for our enemies to hold back our people as they struggle for freedom and independence,” he said in an evening TV address.Abbas said he would “spare no effort to solve the problems of our sons,” suggesting he would try to coax the gunmen off the streets rather than arrest them. Most of the vigilantes have ties to Fatah.Abbas’ corruption-tainted party faces a strong challenge by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which is competing in a general election for the first time. Hamas, which opposes the existence of Israel, promises voters clean government.In newspaper ads published Saturday, Fatah’s top candidate, jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, urged voters to give the party another chance – a rare admission of failure.Hamas has already taken control of several towns in local elections. In Ramallah, the Palestinians’ administrative and economic center, Hamas this week helped elect a new mayor – a Christian.In Jerusalem, 19 candidates affiliated with Fatah threatened to withdraw their candidacy, ostensibly because of Israeli restrictions on voting in the disputed city. However, election officials said the Fatah candidates appeared upset over their ranking on the party list.Israel has threatened to prevent voting in Jerusalem, even long-distance balloting via post offices, but government officials said Saturday a final decision on procedure had not been made. U.S. envoys were expected in the region next week to try to sort out the dispute.