"Palestinian citizens are in deep need"

Arafat, urged to end corruption after unrest, is forced to fire cousin as security chief after two days

Published July 20, 2004 2:00PM (EDT)

The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, yesterday called on Yasser Arafat to put the people before his own interests amid a growing challenge to the Palestinian leader over corruption and cronyism.

In unusually direct criticism of Mr Arafat from within the Palestinian government, Mr Qureia said he had not withdrawn the resignation letter he submitted at the weekend during a spate of kidnappings, violence and protests in the Gaza strip over high-level corruption and Mr Arafat's appointment of a close relative to a top security job.

The prime minister said that Mr Arafat, who is popularly known as Abu Amr, should recognise that "Palestinian citizens are in deep need."

"Enough, enough," he said. "Put the people's interest first.  Oh brother Abu Amr, it is time to put the right person in the right place."

Mr Arafat attempted to quell the unrest yesterday by sacking his cousin, Moussa Arafat, two days after he appointed him security chief.

The appointment drew thousands of people on to the streets of Gaza to protest against corruption within the Palestinian Authority, and led to attacks by al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade on forces loyal to Moussa Arafat in southern Gaza. About 20 people were wounded in the fighting.

On Friday, the brigade kidnapped Gaza's police chief, Ghazi Jabali, accused him of stealing millions of dollars, and demanded he be sacked. Mr Arafat dismissed him the next day.

But Moussa Arafat's firing yesterday was seen as little more than a minimal concession by the Palestinian leader that fails to address the core demands for political reform, including more representative leadership and Mr Arafat surrendering some of his powers.

"One corrupt security officer replaced with another corrupt security officer is not a solution," said Mustafa Barghouti, a civil society leader in Ramallah. "People want real change, not just this musical chairs."

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade derided the sacking as "another attempt to fool people and a way of circumventing reforms and change on the part of the national administration."

But in Gaza City, hundreds of Mr Arafat's supporters marched through the streets, some firing weapons into the air. "We will protect you by our soul and our blood, our hero Abu Amr," they chanted.

Mr Qureia said the only winner from the crisis was the Israeli government. "How cheerful the Israelis are. The only winners are our enemies."

The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, told visiting American Jewish leaders that the upheaval in Gaza reinforced his assertion that the Palestinian leadership was not fit to negotiate with his government. "If somebody wants to see it better, we should just watch what is happening now in Gaza," he said.

The Palestinian cabinet met to consider Mr Qureia's resignation. Mr Qureia said it still stood, pending a written reply from Mr Arafat, but that a majority of his ministers had urged him to stay on.

In the meantime, the cabinet designated a committee of ministers to put the government's concerns to Mr Arafat and to travel to Gaza to assess the situation there.

The violence in Gaza has been fuelled by a power struggle within Mr Arafat's Fatah movement ahead of the Israeli withdrawal of Jewish settlers and the army from the territory next year. But the unrest is underpinned by disillusionment in Gaza at corruption, nepotism and incompetence within the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. Hamas now commands marginally more support than Fatah among Gaza residents.

The Ramallah-based al-Hayat al-Jadeeda newspaper called for Mr Arafat to make dramatic reforms before he is toppled by his failure to do so.

"What's needed is a bloodless coup by Yasser Arafat against Yasser Arafat if he really wants to avoid a bloody overthrow by others."

By Chris McGreal in Ramallah

By Conal Urquhart in Gaza City

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