GAZA CITY, Israeli-Occupied Gaza Strip -- A leading Palestinian politician and a longtime friend of Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat was assassinated yesterday in a sharp escalation of political violence in advance of self-rule here.
Asad Saftawi, 58, the headmaster of a local school, was shot in the head and neck by two masked gunmen as he picked up his son from class just before noon, according to witnesses. The assailants first shot Mr. Saftawi from several yards away and then came closer, smashing his car window, to fire again.
A founder of Fatah, the main group within the PLO, Mr. Saftawi was the third of its Gaza activists to be assassinated since the PLO and Israel signed an accord Sept. 13 for Palestinian autonomy in the Israeli-occupied territories. The leader of the Fatah Vanguards, lawyer Mohammed Abu Shaban, was killed a month ago and his assistant was slain last week.
The killings have heightened fears of a murderous struggle for power among Palestinians as Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho. Such strife would seriously undermine the transfer of power to Palestinian authorities early next year. And the assassination of such a prominent figure as Mr. Saftawi means that anyone could be eliminated.
"We are really worried about it," Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said of the potential turmoil.
Mr. Arafat, a friend of Mr. Saftawi since their university days in Cairo nearly 40 years ago and one of his closest comrades in founding Fatah, lamented the killing.
"I have lost a brother, a maker of peace, one of the leaders of Palestine," Mr. Arafat said in Paris, where he is on a two-day visit. The assassination was part of a "big conspiracy," he said, but he did not say whom he blamed.
Fearing a cycle of killings now, Dr. Zakaria al-Agha, a member of the Palestinian peace delegation from Gaza, called for a meeting of rival factions to prevent further attacks. "If this killing continues, it will be a civil war," Dr. al-Agha warned.
Claiming responsibility for Mr. Saftawi's assassination, a telephone caller told The Associated Press in Damascus that Mr. Saftawi was killed by the previously unknown "Arab Palestine Organization" because of "treacherous contacts" he allegedly had with Israeli intelligence on Mr. Arafat's orders.
"All other traitors will meet the same fate," the caller warned. He said the group was made up of guerrillas who formerly belonged to Ahmed Jibril's radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and who opposed the PLO-Israel accord.
Mr. Saftawi had survived an earlier assassination attempt in July 1992 that was blamed on the fundamentalist group Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. But Hamas denounced his murder yesterday.
Mr. Saftawi served as an intermediary between Israel and the PLO for a number of years, carrying messages to and from Mr. Arafat, some of them from Mr. Rabin as early as 1989.
In April, Mr. Rabin stopped to drink tea at Saftawi's house for 20 minutes.
Mr. Rabin visited Gaza shortly after the slaying and said "we are really worried" about the impact of the slaying on the peace process.