Palestinians plan crackdown on militants

Yasser Arafat’s appointment of an emergency Cabinet is designed to give the Palestinian leadership room to manoeuvre a crackdown on armed factions and stave off threats of his expulsion, observers said on Monday.

A pale-looking Arafat, whom Israel has declared an absolute obstacle to peace, announced late on Sunday that Ahmed Qorei would head a nine-man Cabinet, which would have the powers to engineer a campaign against factions such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, long demanded by Israel and the United States.

A source close to the new Cabinet said that a decision had already been made to move against the hardliners.

“The emergency government has already taken a decision to arrest activists from militant factions and those who have taken responsibility for suicide attacks and to shut down the ‘workshops’,” he said in reference to bomb factories.

According to Ali Jarbawi, a professor at Bir Zeit university near Ramallah, the move was also designed to ease pressure on Arafat, whom the Israelis agreed in principle last month to “remove” from his Ramallah headquarters.

“The main reason behind the emergency status announcment was that the Israeli threats to deport Arafat had become more serious than ever,” said the analyst.

“It’s clear that the emergency status was announced by the Palestinian side in order to save Arafat and also partly because of outside pressure on the Palestinian leadership to move ahead and respond to the Israeli demands calling for action against the resistance groups.”

Security forces under the leadership of new Interior Minister Nasser Yussuf will now have the power to arrest militants at will, an idea that has already sent alarm bells ringing among the factions.

“We want a government to protect the Palestinian intifada and resistance but if this government goes to arrest the Palestinian cadres and stop the resistance, it will not have our support,” said senior Islamic Jihad official Khaled El Batsh.

Qorei agreed about four weeks ago to become prime minister in succession to Mahmud Abbas and has spent much of the intervening time trying to cement support for a new government at a series of meetings with the central committee of Arafat’s Fatah movement as well as other Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) chiefs.

But a senior Fatah source said that the decision to appoint the nine-man government was eventually made without any consultation with the central committee or the PLO.

“The situation became so dangerous that it called for such a decision,” he said on condition of anonymity.

Other sources close to the leadership said that the move came off the back of US intervention.

Washington has refused to negotiate with Arafat but it is understood that Finance Minister Salam Fayed, who has retained his position in the new Cabinet, was used as a conduit between the two sides.

Israel and the US have both accused Arafat of trying to undermine the peace process and say his refusal to cede control of the security apparatus to Abbas, who quit after a power struggle, leaves him responsible for the continuation of suicide attacks like Saturday’s bombing in Haifa which killed 19 people.

But Ahmed Abdul Rachman, an advisor to Arafat, said that Washington would be wise to appreciate that the 74-year-old’s expulsion would have catastrophic consequences.

“President Arafat represents eight million Palestinians and endangering him means endangering the while peace process and cancelling the Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel.”

Jarbawi predicted that the latest moves would not do much more than buy Arafat time.

“I still do not believe that this will be enough to convince Israel not to take action against at the end of the day,” he said.

“But the Palestinians have no way out. They are obliged now to take action.”—Sapa-AFP

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