Arafat and Qureia wrestling for power

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — RAMALLAH, West Bank - The turmoil in the Palestinian leadership continued yesterday as Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia insisted in front of the Cabinet that he had sincerely resigned and was running only "a caretaker government," while Yasser Arafat told members that Qureia was still in charge since the resignation had no legal force.

The two men seemed to be playing a poker game. Qureia is apparently hoping that Arafat will be so embarrassed by the second resignation of a prime minister in little more than a year that he will cede him genuine authority over security in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Arafat is continuing to call what he sees as Qureia's bluff, with his advisers telling the press that Qureia already can do what he wants about security since he runs the Cabinet.


Given that Qureia said the resignation was in effect while Arafat said it was worthless without his consent, it was not clear how the matter would turn out. Top security officials now report to Arafat. When Qureia's supporters complain about their impotence over police matters, Arafat's advisers say the lawlessness is caused not by their ineffectiveness but by the Israeli occupation and periodic helicopter strikes and killings of Palestinian militants.

An adviser, speaking privately, made clear that Arafat thinks Qureia, by insisting on his resignation, is merely maneuvering for advantage in a negotiation over power.


"If I want to resign, I walk in and say, 'I resign,' and I leave," the adviser said. "He's still here."

The crisis was precipitated by a series of short-lived kidnappings of police officials and French workers in Gaza followed by attacks against office buildings under the command of a cousin of Arafat's. On Saturday, Qureia submitted his resignation, suggesting that he could not control the streets as long as Arafat held the reins.

There have been meetings daily since Saturday, the major difference yesterday being the setting. Qureia and the entire Cabinet came to Arafat's tumbledown compound here, where Arafat lives and works in battered stucco buildings surrounded by ruins of other buildings that serve to remind visitors of what Israeli bulldozers did to him.

Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, ducked out after the meeting into a blue Mercedes-Benz without talking to reporters. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an Arafat adviser, held a news conference in the compound's courtyard. Asked about Qureia's complaints about powerlessness over security, Rudeineh said: "Abu Ala has the right to make changes to bring in more ministers or fire ministers. It's not Arafat's responsibility. Abu Ala can do it himself. He is the prime minister."

The Gaza Strip, the scene in recent days of mob attacks against Palestinian Authority offices by those who say they are fed up with government corruption and cronyism, was calm yesterday. But Hezbollah snipers killed two Israeli soldiers on Israel's northern border with Lebanon. Sgt. Itai Iluz, 21, of Afula and another soldier, whose identification was not released, were the 12th and 13th soldiers to die in combat on the border since Israel pulled out of Lebanon in May 2000.

Israeli helicopter gunships later attacked Hezbollah posts, killing one militant.