Dispute between Arafat, premier deepens

Sunday, October 12, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat fought with his new prime minister Saturday over who should be the new Palestinian security chief, in a deepening dispute that threatens to bring down the government appointed less than a week ago.

In an argument with Arafat two days ago, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia hinted he might step down, a possibility that appeared more likely as their fight continued into the night Saturday. As it stands now, Qureia's Cabinet, which Arafat appointed by decree Oct. 5, will serve for one month as planned.

"We have a crisis but we are still trying to work it out," Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said.

Meanwhile, battles continued for a second day in the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza, where Israeli troops were searching for weapons smuggling tunnels. One Palestinian was killed Saturday.

The argument between Arafat and Qureia centered on the appointment of Nasser Yousef as interior minister, a position that would make him the head of the Palestinian security forces. Arafat's refusal to give up full control of those forces led Mahmoud Abbas to resign as premier last month after four months.

Arafat, who named Yousef interior minister in an eight-member emergency Cabinet less than a week ago, withdrew his support for his longtime ally after Yousef refused to participate in a swearing-in of the Cabinet on Tuesday, Palestinian sources said Saturday.

Yousef said he wanted to wait until the government had parliamentary backing. Some saw that as a brazen slight to Arafat, who presided over the ceremony, and a signal of independence to U.S. officials, who hoped to marginalize Arafat and convince the new Cabinet to crack down on militant groups, in line with the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

Qureia has said he would not use force to dismantle the militant groups.

The political troubles boiled over Thursday with the cancellation of the Palestinian legislature's vote on the emergency Cabinet -- which would have turned it into a normal government.

Some members of the legislature were also unhappy with the government's composition and did not want to legitimize a Cabinet that Arafat had appointed by decree.

Arafat's Fatah faction met Saturday and the Palestinian leader said he wanted to replace Yousef with Hakam Balawi, a senior Fatah official, according to a Fatah official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Qureia said dumping Yousef now, just a week after he was named, would embarrass the government, the Fatah official said.

Violence continued Saturday in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, where Israel's military was battling masked gunmen for a second straight day. Israel is searching for tunnels used to smuggle weapons and drugs into Gaza underneath the border with Egypt.

Helicopters flew overhead and bursts of machine gun fire and loud booms echoed through the camp's narrow alleys.

A 19-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed Saturday, bringing to eight the number of Palestinians killed since Israeli forces moved into the camp Thursday night. Among the dead were two children. More than 70 Palestinians had been wounded, including 11 who were hurt Saturday.

The army said troops uncovered and blew up three smuggling tunnels. Local residents said Israel demolished 13 houses.

Israeli snipers took to rooftop lookouts and attack helicopters circled throughout the night, witnesses said.

The military has said it might stay several days, and Erekat said he feared the operation could lead to a reoccupation of the Gaza Strip.

"We believe these are clear-cut crimes," he said. "The Israeli government's endgame is to destroy the peace process and to resume full occupation."

The raid was part of stepped up military activity following last weekend's suicide bombing that killed 20 Israelis in a restaurant in the port city of Haifa.

Military officials, citing intelligence, said Palestinians might be planning to use the tunnels to bring in more advanced weapons, like anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons that could have a strategic impact on the three-year conflict.

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