Monday, May 14, 2007

Palestinian interior minister quits in protest

Compiled by Daily Star staff
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Palestinian interior minister resigned on Monday, rocking a two-month-old unity government after the biggest surge in factional fighting in months revived fears of civil war.

Despite an Egyptian-brokered truce, two Palestinian gunmen and two civilians caught in crossfire were killed in clashes between the Hamas and Fatah groups in in Gaza. Nine people have been shot dead since a new round of violence erupted on Friday.

"I told all parties I cannot accept being a minister without authority," Interior Minister Hani al-Qawasmeh told a news conference after Premier Ismail Haniyya accepted his resignation.

Qawasmeh accused Palestinian both Haniyya and President Mahmoud Abbas of having failed to support him.

"From the beginning, I faced obstacles that robbed the ministry of its powers and made my position empty, without authority," he said. "I reached the conclusion the whole [security] situation is not being dealt with seriously ... The combined force that has been agreed is made up of opposing forces that are fighting as we speak."

Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti said the Cabinet decided to deploy security forces controlled by Abbas and the interior minister under one leadership. He said the forces would answer to Haniyya, who would temporarily take charge of Qawasmeh's ministry.

"We urge all factions to with-draw gunmen from [Gaza] streets," Barghouti said.

"We will not let Gaza become a new Somalia," he added. "We will attack the security mess and beat it inside its home."

Haniyya urged Palestinians to protect the power-sharing agreement and called Fatah and Hamas officials to a meeting at his office later Monday.

On the ground, masked gunmen patrolled Gaza's streets as ordinary Palestinians opted to stay indoors and keep children home from school. Shops were shuttered and taxi drivers took detours to bypass checkpoints set up by rival armed groups.

Hamas' political chief, Khaled Meshaal, said Monday he wants to keep the power-sharing government despite the renewed fighting, a report said Monday. Speaking to Japan's Kyodo News, he said that talk of the Islamists wanting a government to themselves amounted to "false reports."

"We are keen on the national unity government," Meshaal told Kyodo News, which said it conducted the interview Sunday at his base in Syria. "The problem is not between us and Fatah," he was quoted as saying.

At the center of the latest fighting is a dispute over who controls the security forces. A majority of the 80,000 forces in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are loyal to Abbas, the Fatah leader, while Hamas set up its own 6,000-strong "Executive Force" last year.

In forming their coalition in March, Hamas and Fatah put off dealing with the explosive security control problem. At the time, the two sides agreed on Qawasmeh, a long-time civil servant, as the interior minister who would be in charge of the security forces. However, there was little expectation that Qawasmeh would actually be given the authority to restore order and integrate the rival units.

Two weeks ago, a frustrated Qawasmeh threatened to resign, complaining that his plan had been ignored by both sides.

The latest round of fighting began last week after Abbas ordered the deployment of 3,000 troops in Gaza, over the objections of Hamas. Clashes intensified Sunday, with the killing of a local Fatah militant leader.

Among four killed Monday was a truck driver who was delivering bread and was struck by a stray bullet during a firefight near a Gaza City security compound. Three Fatah supporters were shot dead in clashes in Gaza City and the southern town of Khan Younis.

In one incident Sunday, two employees of a Hamas-affiliated newspaper were pulled out of a taxi at a Fatah-manned roadblock and shot dead, according to Hamas' account.

Reporters Without Borders, an international press watchdog group, expressed "deep concern" about the killing of the newspaper employees.

Earlier, sources in Fatah said tensions could lead to the collapse of the unity government within days.

Moin Rabbani, an expert on Palestinian affairs at the International Crisis Group think tank, said the new government was now in jeopardy unless it acted more decisively to exert control and overcome factionalism.

"Unless there is a real effort to resolve these issues, it could be the beginning of the end of this experiment and, should this government collapse, the situation could get very much worse," he said.

However, Abbas is unlikely to dissolve the coalition soon because it would be difficult to hold new elections in the violent climate. Hamas would certainly object to new elections after winning a four-year term in last year's vote. - Agencies.

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