Palestinian leader threatens to leave when short term is up

Prime minister disagrees with Arafat over security

October 13, 2003|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Intent on shoring up a wobbling government, embattled Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia agreed yesterday to spend the next month at the head of an emergency Cabinet. But he added a warning: When that time runs out, Palestinians may have to find themselves a new premier.

It's been less than a week since Qureia was sworn in, but he has spent most of the time fighting Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for control of the security forces. Qureia's predecessor, the U.S.-backed Mahmoud Abbas, was driven from office after just four months, and he spent his tenure trying to balance Arafat's relentless grip on the security forces against international calls for reform and new curbs on militants.

"The same government will continue for another 25 days," Qureia told reporters after a meeting of Arafat's Fatah organization. "And after that, there will be a new government and a new prime minister also."

It wasn't the first time Qureia has threatened to quit. Just two days into his post, he reportedly closed a stormy argument with Arafat by asking the Palestinian president to take him off the job. The new office of prime minister was created by the Palestinian Authority this year under pressure from the United States and Israel - who sought to marginalize Arafat and create a new, more acceptable negotiating partner for Israel.

The United States hoped the prime minister would carry out the "road map" peace plan, which envisions an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Brink of collapse

But Palestinian officials are eager to forge a compromise because they are running out of options. Even the emergency government has been hanging on the brink of collapse. Two of its eight members skipped their swearing-in ceremonies, and many Palestinians regard it as an illegitimate body forged by contorting the law.

The Cabinet will attempt to hold the Palestinian government together without Nasser Yousef, a Palestinian general and longtime Arafat ally who was supposed to oversee the security forces as interior minister.

Yousef originally agreed to the job, but balked when he thought Arafat was working to curb his powers before he had even started. The two quarreled, and Yousef ended up hiding upstairs in Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah during what should have been his inauguration. For now, his job remains empty.

Palestinian officials said closed-door meetings would continue in coming days. No task is so delicate and crucial as reigning in Palestinian militants, which is Israel's foremost demand on any Palestinian government. Qureia has bemoaned the "armed chaos" of the Palestinian territories. But like Abbas, he is wary of cracking down too hard for fear of sparking a civil war.

Gaza raids continue

While the political wrangling continued in Ramallah, refugees in the southernmost stretches of the Gaza Strip came forth slowly to survey the wreckage of an intense, three-day raid near the Egyptian border.

Eight Palestinians were killed, electricity and water service were cut and dozens of homes were flattened after Israeli tanks lumbered into the Rafah refugee camp late last week. Israel came to ferret out and collapse smugglers' tunnels that run under the border and link Rafah with Egypt.

Palestinian militants use the underground channels to sneak weapons into Gaza from Egypt. Three such tunnels were destroyed over the weekend, and Israeli soldiers were still hunting for hidden passages last night.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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