JERUSALEM - The International Committee of the Red Cross has closed its main office in southern Gaza and suspended field operations throughout the Strip in response to lawlessness and a deterioration in internal security.
The move-which includes the suspension of the Red Cross's key programme for families to visit Palestinian prisoners in Israeli gaols-follows the abduction of three UN workers in Khan Yunis on Monday.
The abduction by armed Palestinian militants of one Palestinian and two foreign UN Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA] workers followed an earlier incident in which gunmen fired dozens of bullets at the ICRC office in Khan Yunis in an apparent prelude to a kidnap attempt.
The move means that the key family visits programme of the ICRC has been halted while Red Cross officials seek security guarantees in talks with the PA. The programme enabled 21,000 Palestinians to visit family members in Israeli gaols in June alone.
Juan Coderque, of the ICRC in Gaza, said yesterday that while field operations had been suspended, staff in the agency's Gaza City office were still working as normal, for example on arranging co-ordination with Israel to facilitate Palestinians requiring urgent medical treatment.
He said that the Khan Yunis office had been closed for "the time being" pending "intensive" talks with the PA to "clarify" the security situation.
Mr Coderque said he did not think ICRC was being targeted as such and that it commanded widespread support in Gaza.
Gina Bevevento, spokeswoman for UNRWA, said last night that the agency was "continuing to deliver services to refugees" but would be "assessing" the security situation in the light of recent events.
The developments came as President Mahmoud Abbas used a special meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza yesterday to urge the factions to ensure calm during the evacuation of 8500 Jewish settlers which starts next week on August 17. He said an orderly transfer would boost the Palestinian quest for statehood.
"It is a requirement to ensure that the withdrawal will take place in a civilised manner so that we can show the world we deserve our freedom and independence," he said in a speech broadcast live on Palestinian television.
Mr Abbas also promised that parliamentary elections postponed from July would now be held in January.
Israel wants Abbas' security forces to keep militants reined in during the pull-out and has vowed to strike back hard if attacks are launched during the evacuation.
In talks in Jerusalem, Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed on how to dispose of the rubble from the 21 Jewish settlements to be evacuated and destroyed in the withdrawal, officials from both sides said.
"Israel will carry out preliminary demolition work and afterward a third party, apparently the World Bank, will hire private Egyptian and Palestinian companies to do the final demolition," an Israeli Defence Ministry spokeswoman said.
"Some of the debris will be recycled, while the rest will be buried in Egypt or Gaza. Any hazardous material will be transferred to Israel (for burial)," the spokeswoman said.
Diana Buttu, a legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority, said demolition would begin immediately after the settlers are evacuated and take several months. Israeli troops are expected to remain in the Gaza Strip at least until October.
Condemning rocket fire against Israeli targets, Abbas said the "national interest" required armed groups to abide by a six-month-old truce that has often been marred by violence.
"We don't want any provocation," he said. "Let them go, let us allow them to leave."
But in a sign of difficulties Abbas faces, about 200 masked, armed militants from his own Fatah movement rallied outside the parliament session demanding an end to what they said were recent attempts by security forces to arrest their members.
Abbas also advised against excessive celebration ahead of the Israeli pull-out. Just hours before, about 200 Palestinians waved flags and banners near Gaza's largest settlement, chanting "Today Gaza, tomorrow Jerusalem".
Palestinians welcome any Israeli pull-out but fear Sharon's play is a ruse to trade tiny Gaza for much of the West Bank, where the majority of Israel's 240,000 settlers live.
Polls show most Israelis back the withdrawal but settlers and their supporters say it rewards a Palestinian uprising and betrays Israel's claims on biblical lands.
Israel's Gaza settlers live in heavily fortified enclaves isolated from 1.4 million Palestinians. The World Court has called the settlements illegal. Israel disputes this.
- THE INDEPENDENT and REUTERSBy Donald Macintyre