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Middle East: Arafat Dismisses Security Chief Amid Continuing Crisis In Gaza

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in a bid to defuse mounting tension, announced today he had reversed a decision to appoint his nephew as head of the Palestinian security services. The veteran Arab leader's move comes amid a rapidly deteriorating situation in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian gunmen protesting Arafat's appointment of his nephew, and general corruption in his security apparatus, last night stormed the headquarters of a military-intelligence unit in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. RFE/RL reports that the clashes have triggered a leadership crisis in the Palestinian administration, with Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei offering his resignation twice in two days.

19 July 2004 -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat today dismissed his nephew Moussa Arafat, whom he had picked up to run his administration's security apparatus just two days ago. In his place, he reappointed his predecessor, General Abdel Razek al-Majaideh.

Al-Majaideh, who was reappointed director of general security for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, immediately pledged allegiance to Arafat. "Our military services have a long history and we've done things [in the past] for the sake of Palestine, the sake of the Palestinian cause," he said. "Now, as in the past, we are working under His Excellency President Arafat's services. We promise that we will continue our march under his orders and services."

Al-Majaideh's reappointment follows overnight unrest in Rafah that pitted dozens of Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade militants to forces loyal to General Moussa Arafat. Reports based on eyewitness accounts say the shootout left at least 12 wounded. The armed militants laid siege to a military security headquarters, trading gunfire with guards, and setting a nearby building on fire.

The Rafah clashes followed similar incidents in Gaza City, during which militants stormed a sport club allegedly owned by Moussa Arafat.

On the night of 17 July, similar unrest erupted in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis, with masked gunmen seizing a security building and freeing inmates kept in custody there.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a splinter group of Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the Khan Yunis attack. In a statement sent to Agence France Presse, the group said it wanted to protest Arafat's decision, made public a few hours earlier, to appoint his nephew as head of the Palestinian security services.

The veteran Arab leader had picked General Arafat to oversee a shake-up aimed at reducing by nearly two-thirds the number of Palestinian security agencies, a long-time demand of international mediators. But militants of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claim the 60-year-old Moussa Arafat is a symbol of cronyism and corruption in the administration of the occupied territories and a representative of the "old guard" they say is unable to efficiently confront Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hard-line policy.

Yasser Arafat suffered another blow yesterday when the commander of the Palestinian coast guard, Juma Ghali, tendered his resignation, reportedly in protest at Moussa Arafat's promotion.

Arafat's power base is seen as increasingly unsteady. The security situation in the Gaza Strip has triggered a leadership crisis within the Palestinian Authority. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, who has been in office since last November, handed over his resignation on 17 July. But Arafat refused to accept it.

The two men had a four-hour emergency meeting yesterday at Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah. Qurei made no comment at the outcome of the meeting. But news reports indicate he has since resubmitted his resignation -- again unsuccessfully.

Political commentators believe one way out of the current crisis would be for Arafat to relinquish his control over the security services and hand it over to his prime minister. But whether Arafat would ever consider such a move is far from certain.

Qurei, who has described recent developments in the Gaza Strip as a "real disaster," convened an emergency meeting of his cabinet today. The security crisis was the top item on the Palestinian ministers' agenda.

Speaking to reporters at the end of the meeting, Qurei said he still insisted that Arafat authorize him to step down. "I have submitted my resignation as prime minister. I repeat and confirm to you that I have submitted my resignation in writing to the president for reasons that I clarified in my letter of resignation, which are mainly the [current] state of chaos and lawlessness, and also the need to solve the problems of the [Palestinian] citizens," he said, adding that a government delegation would leave for the Gaza Strip later today to try to defuse tension through talks with Palestinian factions.

In comments made to AFP ahead of the cabinet meeting, the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel, Saeb Erekat, said the overnight clashes in Gaza "cross all red lines." Echoing Erekat's comments, many Palestinian officials have expressed fear that Arafat's administration may be entering a long period of instability.

Arafat and his fellow leaders "are now paying the price of the wanton rule they have imposed on the West Bank and Gaza," Israel's "Haaretz" daily wrote in an editorial today. But the liberal newspaper also blames Sharon's efforts to impose sanctions on the Arab territories for fostering corruption in Arafat's administration while maintaining economic hardship among the Palestinian population.

(compiled from news agencies)