Palestinian bickering continues to worsen

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 13-Oct-03 | Author: Greg Myre| Source: International Herald Tribune

New prime minister warns he may quit over security issue

RAMALLAH, West Bank The latest Palestinian political crisis deepened Sunday when the recently installed prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, said he might leave the job when the current term of the emergency government expired in three weeks.

Qurei was sworn in just on Tuesday, but has been quarreling with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, over the makeup of the new government, with much of the dispute centering on who will hold the crucial position of Palestinian security chief.

The two men have held several rounds of heated talks at Arafat's compound in Ramallah, but neither has spoken publicly about the friction. Following discussions Sunday, Qurei walked out of Arafat's offices and indicated that he might soon leave his post.

"The same government will continue for 20 to 25 days, then after that there will be a new government, with a new prime minister also," Qurei told reporters, and then left without elaborating.

Arafat and Qurei are expected to continue discussions on the new government and could still reach a compromise. The emergency government can serve for up to a month, but the prime minister is expected to present a full cabinet to the Palestinian Parliament for approval by early November.

Qurei's public warning that he might walk away from the job underscored the seriousness of the dispute, and it comes at a time of almost daily Mideast violence and stepped-up Israeli military pressure on the Palestinians.

Israeli troops fatally shot a Palestinian who was trying to plant a bomb overnight Saturday near the Jewish settlement of Morag in the southern Gaza Strip, the military said.

Also, Israeli troops remained in the Rafah refugee camp at the southern end of Gaza for a third day Sunday, but with a much reduced presence. The Israeli troops say they have uncovered three smuggling tunnels that are believed to have been used to bring in weapons from Egypt, just on the other side of border.

Eight Palestinians, including militants and civilians, have been killed during the incursion. About 100 Palestinian homes housing up to 1,500 people have been destroyed, according to Peter Hansen, head of the UN Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees.

"The damage is very, very extensive," Hansen said in Gaza City after touring the refugee camp.

When the Palestinians created the post of prime minister last spring, the move received broad support and was seen as a way to revive the Israeli-Palestinian political dialogue, which had crumbled amid the Mideast bloodletting.

The United States and Israel have shunned Arafat, but said they were willing to deal with a Palestinian prime minister who possessed genuine authority. Palestinians, meanwhile, had become increasingly vocal in calling for political reform, and also welcomed the change.

But the main result has been constant bickering between Arafat and his two handpicked prime ministers, Mahmoud Abbas and Qurei. Both men have been close associates of Arafat for decades in the Fatah movement and have been mentioned as potential successors to Arafat.

But Abbas resigned on Sept. 6, after only four months on the job. Qurei was nominated the next day, and struggled to put together a cabinet.

The lack of a Palestinian government assumed a new urgency when a Palestinian suicide bombing on Oct. 4 killed 20 Israelis and prompted renewed debate in Israel about ousting Arafat. The following day, Arafat issued a decree establishing the new government.

But the internal Palestinian feuding has only intensified over the past week, and the Israeli government says it will not lift a freeze on contacts with the Palestinian leadership until it begins to act against violent Palestinian factions.

Arafat and Qurei have been locked in an argument over the nominee for interior minister, Nasser Yousef, who would be responsible for the Palestinian security forces.

Yousef refused to attend the swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday, apparently because he wanted guarantees on the extent of his powers. Arafat, who has always maintained ultimate control of the security forces, has refused to give such assurances and now opposes giving Yousef the job, Palestinian officials said.

Meanwhile, many Palestinian lawmakers are objecting to the emergency government because it was installed without a debate and a vote of confidence in Parliament.

Ziad Abu Amr, a member of Parliament and a cabinet minister in the previous government, said the emergency government lacked popular support.

"There is no backing among the Palestinians for this emergency government," he said. "It cannot carry out a reform program, and I'm not sure it can handle the security situation without an interior minister."