Arafat scrambles to defuse crisis over Gaza chaos

By Cynthia Johnston GAZA, Reuters

Backing down in the face of unprecedented unrest, Yasser Arafat scrambled on Monday to defuse a Palestinian leadership crisis triggered by turmoil in Gaza over corruption in his government and security forces.

The Palestinian president tried to calm public anger in the Gaza Strip by naming a new security chief over the head of a cousin whose appointment fuelled a weekend of violence spearheaded by gunmen demanding anti-corruption reforms.

But Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie kept up pressure on Arafat, saying his resignation — tendered in frustration after what he called an explosion of “chaos and lawlessness” — would stand for now.

Arafat, a former guerrilla leader, is facing the sharpest challenge to his rule since Palestinians received a measure of self-rule a decade ago, and some fear it could eventually boil over in civil war.

The confrontation is also widely seen as a power struggle between Arafat’s Old Guard and younger rivals staking out turf before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carries out a plan to remove Jewish settlements from Gaza by the end of 2005. Adding to tensions in the region, a bomb killed a senior member of Lebanese guerrilla group Hizbollah in the southern suburbs of Beirut on Monday in an attack the group blamed on Israel. Israeli officials declined comment.

Under intense public pressure to overhaul his security apparatus, Arafat named Abdel-Razek al-Majaideh to the new post of overall director of security for the West Bank and Gaza, outranking Moussa Arafat, the cousin widely seen as a symbol of entrenched cronyism, officials said.

The reinstatement of Majaideh, a veteran commander who resigned earlier this month at Arafat’s request, was greeted by supporters firing automatic weapons in the air.

Gunmen opposed to Moussa Arafat, appointed Gaza security chief on Saturday, had battled security forces on Sunday in clashes that left 18 people wounded. Under the new arrangement, Moussa Arafat will retain a senior security post in Gaza.

Compounding Arafat’s woes was Qurie’s decision on Saturday to tender his resignation after brief abductions on Friday of four French aid workers, a police chief and another official in Gaza. Arafat rejected Qurie’s resignation on Sunday.

After a Cabinet meeting on Monday, Qurie said his resignation would stand pending a written response from Arafat.

“However, most of the ministers in the Cabinet are against this resignation,” Qurie told reporters, signalling that he could still rescind it.

He made clear his final decision could depend on Arafat’s willingness to cede security powers. “It’s about time to reform our security forces,” he said. (Related story on page 2)