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July 05, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Yasser Arafat fired the powerful head of his West Bank Preventive Security Services on Thursday, ending days of speculation over Jibril Rajoub's fate, but not before exposing growing fissures inside the senior ranks of Palestinian leadership.

Both Rajoub and Gaza Strip-based Police Chief Ghazi Jabali were, until recently, pillars of the regime they served. But Arab media reported this week that the Palestinian Authority president had decided to fire both men.

They, in turn, vowed to defy dismissal, posing a serious challenge to Arafat's rule at a time when both Israel and the United States are urging Palestinians to dump their leader.

Jabali told aides Thursday that he had not been fired but was quitting to run against Arafat in presidential elections scheduled for January.

Rajoub continued to reject the media reports through much of Thursday. He told Israel Television that if Arafat wants to institute reforms, he should begin not with Rajoub's security service "but with the corrupt people and corrupt administration."

But shortly before midnight, Rajoub told Al Jazeera television that Arafat had fired him during a two-hour meeting and added that he accepted the decision. Arafat aide Nabil abu Rudaineh confirmed the sacking, saying, "Arafat took the decision as part of the changes it was known would happen."

Rajoub, who speaks fluent Hebrew, had close ties to Israeli security officials before the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in September 2000 and has long been considered a possible successor to Arafat by both U.S. and Israeli officials. But the Israeli army attacked his CIA-built headquarters in the West Bank town of Beitunia during its invasion this spring of Palestinian territories and forced Rajoub's men to surrender militants held there. The defeat caused Rajoub to lose credibility among Palestinians.

The political infighting took center stage in the West Bank on Thursday even as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians scurried to restock their larders after Israel in several places lifted for several hours the curfews that had kept residents of entire cities confined to their homes for days.

Israel moved large forces back into the West Bank last month, after two suicide bombings in Jerusalem claimed the lives of 26 Israelis. Troops had kept curfews clamped on cities for long stretches as they conducted house-to-house searches for militants and their weapons.

In the Gaza Strip late Thursday night, Jihad Amareen, a militant with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, was killed along with a nephew who served as his assistant when the car they were riding in exploded near the Shati refugee camp, Palestinians reported. Palestinians in Gaza accused Israel of assassinating the men. A spokesman for the Israeli army refused to comment.

Al Jazeera, the Arab news channel, reported earlier in the day that hundreds of Preventive Security officers had informed Rajoub's designated replacement that they would not serve under the new commander. A group of senior officers sent a letter to Arafat bitterly complaining about the way Rajoub had been dismissed.

Confined once again to his battered Ramallah headquarters by Israeli troops who surround the compound, Arafat is supposed to be implementing a sweeping reform of his tattered bureaucracy and shattered security services.

But unrest within the top ranks of the leadership is growing as he begins to move against specific officials. Rajoub, who claims the loyalty of the several thousand men serving under him, is thought to be capable of posing a serious threat to Arafat's grip on power if he chooses not to accept his dismissal after all.

Rajoub's power base lies in the West Bank, with the members of Arafat's own Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization who rose through the ranks there.

Arafat's power rests with the exiles who accompanied the Palestinian leader back to the West Bank and Gaza Strip from exile after the PLO signed the historic 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel. For many Palestinians, this old guard has been largely discredited during the nearly two-year conflict with Israel for failing either to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough or force Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian-controlled territories.

"I am a partner in this authority, I'm not just an employee," Rajoub said Thursday night after confirming his dismissal. "There is a political leadership that took this decision.... I will not allow myself or anyone else to violate presidential decisions."

Jabali is widely criticized among Palestinians as corrupt and is seen as having little political support.

However, the clash with the security chiefs is seen as particularly dangerous for Arafat at a time when Palestinians are increasingly expressing dissatisfaction with his regime and aiming barbs directly at his leadership.

Zuhair Manasra, the governor of Jenin, in the West Bank, and a returned exile thought to be deeply loyal to Arafat, told Al Jazeera that he will be replacing Rajoub.

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