Mon, Jul 19, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Gunmen torch Palestinian Authority offices

POWER STRUGGLE President Yasser Arafat rejected Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia's resignation, while Fatah militants protested his appointment of a new security chief


Gunmen burned down offices of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority in Gaza yesterday, as anger spread over the Palestinian leader's overhaul of his security forces that many saw as falling short of genuine reform.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Arafat met Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia over the political crisis that erupted over the continuing violence in Gaza and Qureia's attempt to resign as head of the Palestinian government.

"I totally reject your resignation and consider it nonexistent," Arafat told Qureia at a meeting yesterday, according to Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. Qureia told his Cabinet on Saturday he was firm in his decision to quit.

Dozens of militants belonging to an extreme offshoot of Arafat's Fatah movement stormed an office building in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis shortly after midnight to protest Arafat's appointment of his cousin, Moussa Arafat, as chief of security.

One security guard was wounded in a gun battle with the militants, who seized control of the building, stole weapons, and burned two offices and several cars parked nearby, witnesses and officials said.

Moussa Arafat's appointment was part Arafat's reforms to his security forces, as demanded in the "road map" peace plan sponsored by the US and supported by Egypt.

However, members of Arafat's own Fatah movement were infuriated, accusing Moussa Arafat of being a symbol of the corruption and cronyism of the Palestinian Authority.

Dissent also spread to the security forces when navy chief Gomma Ghali, a strong Arafat supporter, handed in his resignation in protest over Moussa Arafat's appointment. His resignation, and those of two other senior security officers on Friday, have not been accepted, however.

Despite the unhappiness at the appointment, Moussa Arafat took control of the security forces at a handover ceremony in Gaza City yesterday, saying he was prepared to fight all "potential enemies," and would ignore the protests.

"I take my orders from His Excellency President Arafat. The one who appointed me is the only one who can ask me to quit my job," the new security chief said.

Moussa Arafat -- previously the head of the Palestinian intelligence services -- is known as a fierce commander, and completely loyal to Yasser Arafat. He was among the founders of Fatah in 1965.

In 1996, during a mass round up of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, Moussa Arafat shaved the heads and beards of the men he imprisoned to humiliate them.

Human rights groups accused him of torture.

Dissatisfaction with Arafat's reforms spread throughout the Palestinian territories, though violence was confined to the Gaza Strip.

"Arafat now is at a crossroads. Either he makes a revolution inside his authority or the Palestinian people will make a revolution against him, said Ahmed Jamous, a student at Ramallah's Bir Zeit University. "The people want elections and good government, not to be ruled by a group of corrupt thieves."

Qureia updated Arafat on Saturday's stormy Cabinet session, in which ministers raged over the reforms and demanded the prime minister and his Cabinet be given more authority, said ministers, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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