Top Palestinian security official resigns

Associated Press • May 14, 2007 at 10:55 AM

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - The top Palestinian security official quit in exasperation Monday after a second day of firefights among Palestinian factions left four more people dead, including a truck driver delivering bread.

Residents frightened by the upsurge in violence holed up in their homes, leaving Gaza City's streets largely deserted while rival security forces took up positions on rooftops and hundreds of gunmen in black ski masks put up checkpoints and stopped cars.

The 2-month-old Hamas-Fatah unity government struggled to prevent Gaza from again descending into chaos. Government spokesman Ghazi Hamad announced that a truce had been reached at a late-night meeting of rival factions summoned by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. But a similar cease-fire the previous night collapsed in hours.

With eight dead and some 70 wounded in fighting Sunday and Monday, Interior Minister Hani Kawasmeh resigned and accused leaders on both sides of thwarting his efforts to halt the violence.

The career civil servant was a compromise candidate for the top security post when the Fatah movement and the Islamic radicals of Hamas formed a unity government in March after months of factional fighting. His resignation was a new blow to the shaky coalition.

Gazans found the latest violence more ominous than the previous round, saying it signaled the failure of the power-sharing deal between Hamas and Fatah.

"Now they are starting from where they left off," said Jamal Abu Shabaan, 21, who witnessed a gunbattle outside his furniture store Sunday. "If they get to each others' throats, they won't let go this time."

Abu Shabaan said he had made up his mind after the last round of bloodshed to emigrate to Saudi Arabia and expected to leave in the coming days.

Universities were closed because of the violence, and many worried parents kept their children home from school.

"It's a curfew out there, masked men everywhere and kidnappings," said Shereen Abu Hassira, 36, who made her five school-age children stay inside Monday.

Abu Hassira said her brother was snatched by Hamas gunmen Sunday night because he had been riding in a car with a Fatah-allied policeman. "No one cares for anyone anymore," she said. "If they thought of our children, they wouldn't have done this."

The Palestinian infighting, combined with a government crisis in Israel that is threatening to bring down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is hurting new attempts to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the peace table after seven years of conflict.

Despite the setbacks, Olmert planned to meet with King Abdullah II in Jordan on Tuesday to explore ways of advancing an Arab League peace initiative offering Israel normalized relations in exchange for land withdrawals.

At the center of the new Palestinian fighting is a dispute over who controls the security forces. A majority of the 80,000 security officers in the West Bank and Gaza are loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, while Hamas set up its own 6,000-strong militia last year. In forming their coalition, Hamas and Fatah put off dealing with the explosive problem of security control. At the time, the two sides agreed on Kawasmeh as the interior minister, ostensibly in charge of all security forces, but there was little expectation he would actually be given authority to integrate the rival forces under a joint command. Two weeks ago, a frustrated Kawasmeh threatened to resign, complaining his security plan had been ignored by both sides. On Monday, he resubmitted his resignation, and this time the prime minister accepted it. Haniyeh said he would serve as interior minister until a replacement was named. At a news conference, Kawasmeh accused both Abbas and Haniyeh of failing 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 told all the concerned parties, including the president and the prime minister, that I must have full authority to be able to carry out my full duties." The government has also failed at its second task - trying to lift an international boycott of financial help for the Palestinian Authority that was imposed when Hamas first took power after winning parliamentary elections last year. Despite the renewed strains, Abbas was unlikely to dissolve the coalition soon because it would be difficult to hold new elections in the violent climate in the Palestinian territories. Hamas would certainly object to a new ballot after winning a four-year term in last year's vote. The latest round of fighting began last week after Abbas ordered the deployment of 3,000 troops in Gaza over the objections of Hamas. On Monday, the dead included a truck driver hit by a stray bullet while delivering bread and three Fatah supporters shot in clashes in Gaza City and the southern town of Khan Younis. AP-CS-05-14-07 1802EDT

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