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Korei May Follow Abbas in a Month

Frustrated Palestinian prime minister says the Cabinet will last 25 days. In Gaza, Rafah camp residents survey Israeli raid's wreckage.

October 13, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Intent on shoring up a wobbling government, embattled Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei agreed Sunday to spend the next month at the head of an emergency Cabinet. But he added a warning: When that time runs out, Palestinians may have to find themselves a new premier.

It's been less than a week since Korei was sworn in, but he's spent most of that time fighting Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for control of the security forces. Korei's predecessor, the U.S.-backed Mahmoud Abbas, was driven from office after just four months, having spent his tenure trying to balance Arafat's unyielding stance with international calls for reform and new curbs on militants.

"The same government will continue for another 25 days," Korei told reporters after a meeting of Arafat's Fatah organization. "And after that, there will be a new government and a new prime minister also."

It wasn't the first time Korei has threatened to quit. Just two days into his job, he reportedly closed a stormy argument with Arafat by asking the president to relieve him of the post.

But Palestinian officials are eager to forge a compromise because they are running out of options. Even the emergency government has been hanging on the brink of collapse. Two of its eight members skipped their swearing-in ceremonies, and many Palestinians regard it as an illegitimate body forged by contorting the law.

The Cabinet will attempt to hold the Palestinian government together without Nasser Yousef, a Palestinian general and longtime Arafat ally who was supposed to oversee the security forces as interior minister.

Yousef originally agreed to the job but balked when he thought Arafat was working to curb his powers before he even started. The two quarreled, and Yousef ended up hiding upstairs in Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah during what should have been his inauguration. For now, his position remains unfilled.

Palestinian officials said closed-door meetings will continue. No task is so delicate and crucial as reining in the militants, Israel's foremost demand on any Palestinian government. Korei has bemoaned the "armed chaos" of the Palestinian territories. But like Abbas, he is wary of cracking down too hard for fear of sparking a civil war.

While the political wrangling continued in Ramallah, refugees in the southernmost stretches of the Gaza Strip came forth slowly to survey the wreckage of an intense, three-day raid near the Egyptian border.

Eight Palestinians were killed, electricity and water service were cut and dozens of homes were flattened after Israeli tanks lumbered into the Rafah refugee camp late last week. They came to ferret out and collapse tunnels that run under the border and link Rafah with Egypt.

Palestinian militants use the underground channels to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt. Three tunnels were destroyed over the weekend, and soldiers were still hunting for hidden passages Sunday night.

But most of the tanks and bulldozers had pulled out of Rafah, leaving local officials to declare a state of disaster. About 120 homes and apartment houses were ruined, said Peter Hansen, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency serving Palestinian refugees. "Between 1,000 and 2,000 people have been left with nothing whatsoever," he told Reuters.

The Israeli military said only a handful of Palestinian homes were intentionally demolished because they had been booby-trapped or used as cover for militants. More homes might have been damaged by shockwaves or hit by stray rockets fired by militants, the military said.

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