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Arafat leads Cabinet talks

By Associated Press
Published September 19, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank - His popularity soaring, Yasser Arafat and leaders of his Fatah movement met Thursday to discuss the makeup of a new Cabinet, while Israel's foreign minister ruled out any dealings with the Palestinian leader and called his latest truce proposal an empty gesture.

In the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces pressed on with their offensive, killing 34-year-old local Hamas leader Jihad Abu Shwairah in a shootout in the Nusseirat refugee camp. Hundreds of soldiers took part in the early morning raid, an apparent signal to Hamas that Israel would not limit itself to airstrikes in Gaza.

Israel was trying to arrest Shwairah, said an army commander identified only as Lt. Col. Ofer. When soldiers surrounded the house, Shwairah fired an automatic weapon, seriously wounding a soldier, the officer said. Two soldiers were moderately wounded.

Also in Gaza, Palestinian police clashed Thursday with Hamas supporters after Palestinian security arrested seven Hamas members in connection with the kidnapping of a police officer a day earlier. Fifteen protesters were wounded, one seriously, and two Palestinian police officers were hurt by rocks, witnesses and hospital officials said.

Israel has killed 13 Hamas members and six bystanders in air attacks in Gaza since mid August, when a Hamas suicide bombing killed 23 people on a Jerusalem bus, ending a relative lull of almost two months in the violence.

Fifteen Israelis were killed last week in two suicide bombings. In response, Israel's security Cabinet decided to "remove" Arafat at an unspecified future date.

In interviews this week, Arafat called for a new truce. But Israeli officials swiftly rebuffed the demand that they suspend attacks on terrorist groups as well as dealing again with Arafat, whom they accuse of fomenting terrorism and protecting the militants.

"For 10 years, this man has toyed with us and always gives, at the time he thinks is right, some empty peace gesture," said Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. He said the summer cease-fire experiment was a failure that proved "there is a need to dismantle the infrastructure of terror."

Mahmoud Abbas, who resigned Sept. 6 as Palestinian premier after four months on the job, had said he would disarm the militants through persuasion and not force. But Israelis believe he might have done more to crack down if Arafat had not kept control over key Palestinian security agencies.

Arafat's position was, if anything, strengthened as members of the Fatah Central Committee began choosing candidates for 15 of 23 seats in the new Cabinet. The procedure gives Arafat effective control over the government of Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia.

It is unclear whether Fatah would present Qureia with a slate of 15 ministers or with candidates for the Cabinet he is expected to announce early next week.

The remaining eight ministers would represent other Palestinian groups or independents. Fatah also has been trying to persuade Hamas to join the government, without success, said Abbas Zaki, a Fatah legislator.

At the six-hour meeting, the Fatah leaders did not decide on a list of ministers, participants said.

Moussa Zabout, a Gaza physician with ties to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, said he has accepted an offer to join the Cabinet and that Hamas officials did not object to his taking the job. That could signal a softening of Hamas' refusal to be part of the Palestinian Authority.

Arafat told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot in an interview published Thursday that Hamas is sending positive signals about a truce and that the smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad is ready to declare a cease-fire. "Up to now, the results are positive, there is a positive outlook from their perspective," Arafat said.

But when asked whether he would take action against the two groups, Arafat replied: "How should we disarm them? Don't your murderous acts lead to a retaliation?"

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