Arafat scrambling to defuse crisisChallenge to his authority mounts
RAMALLAH, West Bank Yasser Arafat struggled on Monday to resolve a political crisis and extinguish street unrest in the Gaza Strip as he faced perhaps the strongest internal challenge to his authority since establishing the Palestinian government a decade ago.
Despite the deepening crisis, Arafat's position as the Palestinian leader did not appear to be in jeopardy. But he has been unable to restore order to the increasingly chaotic Palestinian areas, and has not commented publicly in the past few days on the turmoil swirling around him.
In violence Monday evening, a prominent Israeli judge, Adi Azar, was killed in a drive-by shooting in a suburb of Tel Aviv. It was not immediately clear who was responsible.
The Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, which is linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed it carried out the shooting, according to Reuters. However, Israel's justice minister, Yosef Lapid, said on Israeli television that his initial reaction was that Palestinians probably had not been behind the shooting. The attack marked the first time a judge has been killed in Israel's 56-year-history, Lapid said.
The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, said that the resignation letter he presented to Arafat on Saturday still stood and that Arafat had not provided a written response. Qurei, who has been in the post less than a year, said he was quitting to protest the lawlessness in Gaza and the disarray among the security forces, which are controlled by Arafat.
"The Palestinian citizen in the street is saying, 'Why are they fighting? Is there any authority?'" Qurei said. "Chaos will not achieve our aims. It cannot bring victory. The winner is our enemy."
Despite the resignation letter, Qurei headed a cabinet session on Monday and said afterward that most of the ministers were opposed to his decision to quit.
Qurei also announced that a group of cabinet members would see Arafat to raise the ministers' concerns.
The collapse of the Palestinian government would be a blow to Arafat, and he was trying to prevent it. But it was not clear whether Arafat was willing to cede some of his broad powers or introduce political reforms that have been demanded by the international community, as well as a growing number of Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Arafat tried to pacify militants and protesters in Gaza who have responded with anger and violence to the appointment of Arafat's cousin, Mousa Arafat, as the head of general security in Gaza. Palestinian militants on Sunday attacked a building controlled by Mousa Arafat's forces.
Gunbattles left more than a dozen Palestinians wounded in Gaza.
Arafat on Monday called Abel Razek Majaida, a senior security commander who was ousted last week, and told him he was being promoted and would effectively become Mousa Arafat's boss as the overall head of general security in Gaza and the West Bank.
However, the move did not satisfy the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades, which has been sharply critical of Arafat's recent moves despite its affiliation with Arafat's Fatah movement. The appointment of Majaida "is another attempt to fool people and is a way of circumventing reforms and change on the part of the national administration," Al Aksa said in a statement sent to Agence France-Presse.
The Palestinian critics say that the Palestinian Authority is riddled with corruption, and that a number of senior security commanders are among the worst offenders. Many of the militants and protesters in Gaza are supporters of Muhammad Dahlan, a former security chief himself who still commands loyalty among his former officers. Dahlan, who is in his early 40s, has pushed hard for a younger generation of Palestinians to join the senior ranks in the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah movement, which is still dominated by members of Arafat's generation. Arafat, 74, has surrounded himself with aides who worked with him during his quarter-century in exile. That is another source of friction with younger Fatah members who have grown up in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel has avoided direct involvement in the internal Palestinian fighting.
But Israeli officials have said they would not be disappointed if Arafat is further weakened by the instability. Zeev Boim, Israel's deputy defense minister, told Israel radio that he hoped "these developments will finally move Arafat to the sidelines, and so finally we will be able to talk to serious and responsible forces."
A Foreign Ministry statement said Shalom had called the EU's foreign and security policy chief, Javier Solana, and said the EU position in the forthcoming General Assembly vote would be an indicator of the Europeans' ability to take a balanced stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "Shalom asked Solana to use his influence to ensure that the EU oppose the Palestinian efforts," the statement said.
"Their conversation was part of a wider campaign by the Foreign Ministry to prevent the UN General Assembly from approving a draft Palestinian resolution on the security fence," the statement added.
In Brussels, however, Solana echoed the ruling by the International Court of Justice in the Hague when he spoke to reporters before setting out on a Middle East tour.
"Israel has the right to construct defensive walls in their own territory, but it does not have the same right to do it in other territories," he said.
Israel says the barrier is needed to keep out suicide bombers and gunmen, who have killed hundreds during four years of conflict.
Solana starts his five-day visit on Tuesday with talks in Amman with Jordan's King Abdullah II. He attends a meeting of regional foreign ministers in Cairo on Wednesday and winds up in Israel Thursday and Friday for meetings with Shalom, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the opposition leader, Shimon Peres.