Palestinian premier calls for security forces to be reformed

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Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, yesterday stepped up the internal pressure on Yasser Arafat by issuing a direct public demand for long-promised reform of the maze of largely unaccountable security forces in Gaza and elsewhere in the occupied territories.

Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, yesterday stepped up the internal pressure on Yasser Arafat by issuing a direct public demand for long-promised reform of the maze of largely unaccountable security forces in Gaza and elsewhere in the occupied territories.

Amid a deepening political crisis within the Palestinian Authority (PA) triggered by the new wave of unrest in Gaza, Mr Qureia insisted after a cabinet meeting that his resignation from office still stood for now and declared: "The time has come to reactivate our security apparatus. The time has come to put the appropriate men in the appropriate jobs."

The televised appeal to the PA President was the first of its kind by the hitherto conflict-averse Prime Minister. It came after Mr Arafat had bowed to pressure from his increasingly vociferous internal critics and Gaza militants linked to his own Fatah organisation by rescinding the appointment of his nephew Mousa Arafat to head the security apparatus in Gaza. The unpopular Mousa Arafat will retain a senior post but under the overall command of General Abdel Razek Majaide, recalled to run security only 48 hours after being dismissed by Mr Arafat on Saturday.

Declining to take questions, Mr Qureia announced the appointment of an eight-member ministerial troubleshooting committee to meet Mr Arafat and press home the Prime Minister's appeal before travelling to Gaza in attempt to defuse tension after at least 12 Palestinians were wounded on Sunday in fighting - apparently triggered by Mousa Arafat's appointment - between members of the Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and PA security forces.

Mr Qureia said he had submitted his resignation in response to the "chaos and lawlessness" in Gaza, which began last Friday when rebels kidnapped the Palestinian police commander, a colonel and four French aid workers.

While Mr Qureia left the way open to possible withdrawal of his resignation by saying most of the cabinet were against him going, he said that he had yet to receive a written response to it by Mr Arafat and that it therefore "still stands".

Mr Qureia was at pains to say that Mr Arafat's pre-eminence as the Palestinian leader was undisputed but that this did not preclude disagreements with him. "We want to make this appeal to him whether we stay in the government or not," he added. "The language of logic must prevail."

The specifics of the demands over security, which follow several days of agitation directed - at least in part - at widespread corruption in the PA and the autocratic regime operated by Mr Arafat, will resonate because they are virtually the same as those which triggered the resignation of Mr Qureia's predecessor, Abu Mazen, in a furious and in the end public fissure with the PA President last September.

In March 2003, the Palestinian Legislative Council, in effect the PA's parliament, approved so far largely unimplemented amendments to the Basic Law requiring control of security services to pass to the cabinet and to the Interior Minister - currently Hakam Balawi - in particular, on the ground that ministers were accountable to the council as Mr Arafat was not.

Jamal Alshoubaki, the Minister for Local Government and one of the eight-man team appointed by Mr Qureia yesterday, said yesterday that for eight to nine months "the government has done nothing to control the security forces. We should operate the Basic Law in this regard. They should be reformed, restructured and united, and their leaders changed, not because they are all corrupt but because they have been in this business for many years."

He claimed that some of the recent unrest in Gaza appeared to have been an attempt to thwart the PA's achievement in securing the International Court of Justice's ruling against Israel's security fence and that Israel would be the main beneficiary of the turmoil and unrest among Palestinians. But as an example of the failings of the numerous and hitherto chaotically overlapping security services, he cited the failure to bring to justice the killers of three US security guards travelling in a convoy through Gaza last October. This has been a source of outrage in Washington.

The US along with the EU has long demanded reform of the security services. But while it remains unclear how far Mr Qureia is likely to push his resignation, and while the prospects of Israeli disengagement from Gaza has inevitably sharpened Palestinian internal struggles for control of the Strip, the agitation within Fatah may prove more difficult for Mr Arafat to resist than international pressure. According to the pollster and political scientist Dr Khalil Shikaki, events in Gaza constitute "the first direct challenge to Mr Arafat himself".

¿ The UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, Unrwa, announced last night that it was pulling out its 20 foreign staff members from Gaza because of the chaos.

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