Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia submitted his resignation Saturday, but it was rejected by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a deepening political crisis over corruption, deteriorating security and resistance to reform in the Palestinian Authority. Cabinet ministers said Qureia insisted his action was final.
Qureia said he resigned over the growing turmoil in the Gaza Strip, where the top police chief, another senior security official and four French nationals were kidnapped by militant groups in three separate incidents Friday. All were released unharmed within hours of their abductions, but the Gaza police chief, Ghazi Jabali, was paraded through the streets of a crowded refugee camp and accused of stealing millions in public funds.
"This is a true disaster," Qureia, who is also known as Abu Ala, told reporters before meeting with Arafat and tendering his resignation. "This is a level of chaos that we have never seen before."
Afterward, in an emergency meeting, "a majority of the cabinet members urged Abu Ala to retract" the resignation and "he said his resignation stands," according to Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel. Erekat said the cabinet "agreed to continue emergency sessions for next two days," although Qureia told the group that "he did not resign to make negotiations over it."
Arafat moved to quash the rising complaints about corruption and lawlessness in Gaza by declaring a state of emergency there Saturday, replacing Jabali and announcing a major consolidation of 12 Palestinian security services into three agencies. At the same time, Arafat rejected the resignations of two other senior security officials in Gaza who had quit Friday night, complaining about the general state of disorder, political interference with their jobs and a lack of meaningful security reforms.
The events signaled an increasing disenchantment with Arafat's leadership and anger at the lack of significant achievements by Qureia and his government after eight months in office. They also underscored the deteriorating security situation in Gaza, where armed Palestinian groups -- capitalizing on widespread disillusionment -- are challenging the Palestinian Authority and its security agencies for control of the streets.
The security situation is also a concern in Israel, where Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is pushing a plan to withdraw all Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers from the Gaza Strip by the end of 2005. Some opponents of the plan express concern that a weak Palestinian Authority would leave a vacuum from which militant groups such as the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and Islamic Jihad could attack Israel at will.
It was unclear how significant the changes announced Saturday by Arafat would be. Consolidation of the roughly 12 Palestinian security forces into three agencies under a single unified command has been a top demand of the United States, Israel and the international donor community for years. But several consolidations had been announced previously, and none has been fully or permanently implemented.
Although Arafat fired Jabali, long considered his right-hand man in Gaza, as the top police official in Gaza, he replaced him with another loyalist, Maj. Gen. Saeb Ajez. Arafat also appointed his first cousin, Mousa Arafat, as head of Palestinian general security forces in Gaza.
"This is window dressing," said Ziad Abu Amr, a reformist Palestinian legislator from Gaza City. "These are isolated, superficial measures, and the whole Palestinian situation requires major surgery."
Abu Amr called on Qureia to resign, saying his government was "part of the problem, not part of the solution. He never insisted on exercising his mandate and responsibilities. This is a prime minister who put the issue of chaos on the top of his agenda, and chaos has increased ever since he came to power."
Qureia's government was appointed in November after the first Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, resigned. Abbas was in a bitter power struggle with Arafat over who would control the security forces.
Analysts said that Qureia, 66, learned from Abbas's tumultuous term that it was futile to confront Arafat, who as president of the Palestinian Authority is the most senior leader and wields near absolute powers. Qureia's administration has been distinguished by his refusal to stand up publicly to Arafat.
There is no Palestinian leader of equal stature waiting to take over as prime minister should the government be disbanded.
Last week, U.N. Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen told the Security Council that Qureia's government was in "paralysis" and the Palestinian Authority was "in real danger of collapse." The core problem, he said, was "the lack of political will" to enact reforms, particularly in the security services.
In an unprecedented sign of internal dissatisfaction, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed faction affiliated with Arafat's mainstream Fatah political movement, recently gave the Palestinian leadership a blistering anti-corruption manifesto, calling on Arafat to relinquish some of his powers and demanding that corrupt officials in the Palestinian Authority be fired and prosecuted.