Rather than fight them, Palestinian officials have been negotiating deals with those behind a wave of kidnappings, and the lenience is worsening the chaos left behind after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, according to a senior Palestinian security official.
Citing the example set by Iraqi insurgents, gunmen are increasingly resorting to kidnappings to get jobs, break relatives out of jail or settle personal scores. Gaza and the West Bank suffered 31 abductions in August and 44 in September, according to official statistics.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' reluctance to crack down on crime appears driven by the same fear that has prevented him from going after terrorists: He doesn't want to unleash a battle he easily could lose.
'Authority can't assign policeman for every citizen'
A top Abbas aide, Rafiq Husseini, denied the authorities were giving in to kidnappers' demands. However, the security official as well as a terrorist and a human rights activist all said otherwise.
"No one is ever held accountable," said Raji Sourani, a prominent human rights lawyer in Gaza.
The security official requested anonymity, saying he was afraid to go public in the dangerously charged atmosphere in Gaza. He complained that the readiness to negotiate with kidnappers was encouraging crime.
In a further twist, many of those involved in kidnappings have ties to the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a terror group linked to Abbas' ruling Fatah movement. Other hostage-takers even serve in the security forces.
Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, an Interior Ministry spokesman, acknowledged the government appears weak, but said little can be done for now.
"The abductions will end only when we clean our streets of weapons," said Abu Khoussa. "Everyone who has weapons can do whatever he wants to do and the authority can't assign a policeman for every citizen to protect him."
Among those seized were 11 foreigners, including journalists and aid workers, and Palestinian commentators are warning the abductions will hinder economic progress in Gaza following Israel's historic pullout last month.
"Our areas will be seen as unsafe and lawless," said Palestinian columnist Hassan Kashef. "These acts ... will discourage serious investors."
A leading terrorist, giving only his code name, Abu Abir, said his men take their cue from Iraqi insurgents who have seized more than 200 foreigners and killed nearly 40 in their campaign to drive out foreign troops and reconstruction teams.