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Palestinian justice minister resigns post in power protest

Sunday, August 8, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The Palestinian justice minister announced his resignation Saturday to protest Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's refusal to share power, adding to growing turmoil in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian justice minister, Nahed Arreyes, said he has been stripped of much of his authority over the legal system. Last year, Arafat created a rival agency to the Justice Ministry and continues to control the judiciary.

Arreyes said he submitted his resignation to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia on Wednesday. However, Qureia said he has not accepted the resignation and would press the minister to stay.

The resignation underscored the growing crisis in the Palestinian Authority. Arafat has been trying to beat back demands for internal reform. Adding to the chaos, different groups of gunmen have backed players on all sides, carrying out kidnappings and shootings.

In an interview in his Gaza City home, Arreyes said that he no longer had authority over state prosecutors. "The prosecution should be under the control of the Justice Ministry, according to the law," he said, declining to elaborate. "My resignation comes as a protest against the incorrect position of the prosecution."

Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Qassis also resigned, but apparently not as an act of protest. Qassis said he was leaving the Cabinet to serve as president of Bir Zeit University, the largest in the West Bank.

In Israel, Tzahi Hanegbi, the police minister, warned that Jewish extremists might target a key Jerusalem holy site, home to two major mosques, in hopes of stopping Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The mosque compound is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, site of their biblical temples, and by Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, the spot where tradition say Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The compound holds the Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques. The Western Wall, a remnant of the last temple's retaining wall, runs along one side of the site, and is Judaism's holiest shrine. Some Jewish extremists have called repeatedly for the destruction of the mosques to make way for the rebuilding of the temple.

The site is administered by the Muslim authorities, while Israeli police are in charge of overall security.

Hanegbi said there are warning signs that extremists would try to attack the mosques or Israeli leaders. Asked by Israel Radio whether he believed some of the extremists should be detained without trial, in so-called administrative detention, he said: "This is not within my authority, but I'm in favor. I'm in favor of any measure that can prevent an attack on the Temple Mount or an attack on public officials."

Administrative detentions are ordered by the defense minister. Thousands of Palestinians suspected of anti-Israeli violence have been locked up for months, and some even years. The practice has been applied to Jews only in extremely rare cases, and ordering roundups of suspected extremists would mark a major change in Israeli policy.

On Saturday evening, some 30,000 Israeli Arabs attended an annual children's festival at the Al Aqsa compound, organized by Israel's Islamic Movement, one of the largest political groups among Israeli Arabs.

Organizers read a speech from the movement's jailed leader, Raed Salah, in which he said Israel is not doing enough to prevent extremists from attacking the site.

"Clearly you have detailed information that some Jewish extremists are planning to blow up the Al Aqsa mosque from the air, but we have not seen any acts by you to stop these Jewish extremists," he said, in reference to Hanegbi's repeated warnings. However, the police minister never provided details about the alleged plots, including a possible airborne attack.

Israel has jailed Salah and several other leaders of the movement, charging that the organization is funneling money to the militant group Hamas.

In the speech, Salah warned that "if even one stone of the mosque is harmed," Israel will be to blame. The holy site is a frequent flashpoint of tensions, and any harm to the mosques would likely ignite massive protests across the Muslim world.


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