Prime minister's bid to step down rejected by Arafat

Abductions, frustrations with Palestinian leader trigger Qureia's decision

July 18, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, citing a "state of chaos" in the Gaza Strip and in the fractious Palestinian security services, submitted his resignation yesterday to Yasser Arafat, who refused to accept it.

Qureia's bid to step down, which he insists he will not rescind, throws the Palestinian political scene into disarray. He would be the second Palestinian prime minister to quit in less than a year - and the second to try without success to get Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, to accept reforms demanded by international mediators and, increasingly, by Palestinians.

The backdrop of this latest upheaval is Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's initiative to hand the Gaza Strip back to the Palestinians by the end of next year. Already, a power vacuum appears to be emerging in the territory.

The immediate trigger for Qureia's decision was a particularly lawless day in Gaza on Friday, during which four French nationals and two Palestinian security officials - including the territory's police chief, who was appointed by Arafat - were the victims of brazen daylight abductions by armed Palestinian militants. All were eventually freed unharmed.

But Gaza's explosive volatility is not the only factor behind Qureia's wish to step aside.

The 66-year-old Palestinian prime minister has been stymied for months in efforts to persuade Arafat, 74, to relinquish personal control of the dozen branches of the Palestinian security services, a disorderly melange of about 40,000 men split into various competing fiefdoms in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinians, suffering ever-greater daily hardships as the conflict with Israel drags on toward its fifth year, are increasingly angry over rampant corruption in Arafat's Palestinian Authority, the governing body created nearly a decade ago under now-crumbled interim peace accords.

Militant groups such as Hamas - whose Islamist leaders have traditionally been believed to be more ascetic in nature, shunning personal financial gain stemming from their positions - have been able to tap into popular discontent over the long-running spectacle of Arafat's inner circle enriching itself.

`A crisis'

It was unclear whether Qureia would carry through with his stated intention to quit. Such brinkmanship is a common feature of Palestinian political life; his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, made several such threats before finally stepping down in September.

With the status of Qureia's government in limbo, the Palestinian Cabinet was to convene tomorrow to discuss its options, senior officials said.

But several associates said they did not believe Qureia would agree to stay on.

"We have a crisis," said Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, formerly the chief Palestinian negotiator. "We have witnessed a grave deterioration in the Gaza Strip, and we hope the rule of law can be maintained."

Arafat, as he often does under pressure, sought to appear amenable to urgent demands being put to him.

Reshuffling

After Qureia went to Arafat's half-wrecked headquarters yesterday morning and presented a letter of resignation, Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdeineh emerged to announce that the veteran leader had agreed to streamline the security forces and reshuffle top jobs.

Among the officials Arafat dismissed was Ghazi Jabali, the Gaza police chief who had been abducted a day earlier by gunmen who publicly paraded him through an impoverished refugee camp and accused him of embezzling funds.

But the new security lineup also consisted of longtime Arafat loyalists, including his first cousin, Moussa Arafat, a move that led to a protest march in Gaza City by thousands of demonstrators, according to witnesses.

Qureia, who is widely known as Abu Ala, was appointed to his post in September last year. His predecessor, Abbas, quit after serving four months, during which his efforts to restart peace talks with Israel were frustrated by Arafat.

One face-saving option for Arafat and Qureia could be that Arafat would give the prime minister the go-ahead to form a new government while staying on as its head. That would give Qureia an opportunity to clear his Cabinet of those he believes are impeding reform efforts.

The Palestinian political turmoil comes as Israel girds for an expected confrontation at the United Nations over the security barrier it is building in the West Bank. This month, the International Court of Justice branded the barrier illegal. Israel has signaled that it will use the Gaza unrest as an argument in favor of walling off the West Bank from Israel proper.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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