Palestinian PM Says He Won't Keep Job

Interim Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) told the ruling Fatah (search) party Sunday he does not intend to seek the job when a new Cabinet is formed in three weeks, Fatah officials said.

Speaking after a meeting of the Fatah central committee, Qureia said a new government would be formed in three weeks "with a new prime minister, too."

If Qureia follows through, he would be the second Palestinian prime minister since last month to give up the job because of disputes with Yasser Arafat (search). However, with several more weeks in his term, he could reach a compromise with the Palestinian leader that would keep him in office.

Qureia currently heads an emergency, temporary Cabinet appointed by Arafat decree a week ago. When that Cabinet expires in early November, Qureia was to have formed a more permanent Cabinet to be confirmed by Palestinian legislators.

But Qureia has been arguing with Arafat for days over who would be security chief in the new Cabinet and whether Arafat even had the authority to name an emergency Cabinet without legislative approval. During a heated fight last week, Qureia threatened to resign, just days after taking office.

Under an agreement worked out Sunday, Qureia and the six emergency Cabinet ministers sworn in last week would serve their remaining three weeks without a security chief, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said. Legislators would not be asked to confirm them.

At the end of that period, Qureia and the Cabinet would resign and a new government would be formed and presented to the legislature for approval, a senior Palestinian official said.

Qureia's predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas (search), resigned Sept. 6 after just four months in office, caught between Israeli demands for a crackdown on militants and Arafat's refusal to give up any control over security forces.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army said it withdrew some troops from the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza, where it was fighting for two days while searching for weapons-smuggling tunnels. Eight Palestinians were killed and local residents said the army destroyed dozens of houses.

The argument between Arafat and Qureia centered on Arafat's appointment of Nasser Yousef as interim interior minister, making him head of the security forces.

In the past, Arafat has demanded significant control over a portion of the security force. An independent-minded interior minister is considered crucial for efforts to salvage the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for a crackdown on Palestinian militants and creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Qureia has said he will not use force against militants.

But Arafat withdrew his support for his longtime ally after Yousef refused to participate in the swearing-in of the Cabinet on Tuesday, Palestinian sources said Saturday.

Yousef said he wanted to wait until the government had parliamentary backing. Some saw that as a brazen slight to Arafat, who presided over the ceremony, and a signal of independence to U.S. officials hoping to marginalize Arafat.

On Thursday, the Palestinian legislature's vote on the emergency Cabinet -- which would have turned it into a normal government -- was canceled. Some legislators also were unhappy with the government's composition and did not want to legitimize a Cabinet that Arafat had appointed by decree.

Arafat said Saturday he wanted to replace Yousef with senior Fatah official Hakam Balawi, a Fatah official said on condition of anonymity. Qureia said dumping Yousef just a week after he was named would embarrass the government, a Palestinian official said.

Under Sunday's agreement, there would be no interior minister for now and security forces temporarily would be controlled by the Arafat-led National Security Council.

The Israeli military said Sunday it had reduced its forces in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, but operations there were continuing.

Israeli soldiers battled masked Palestinian gunmen in the camp Saturday, for a second straight day. Israel was searching for tunnels used to smuggle weapons and drugs into Gaza underneath the border with Egypt.

Helicopters flew overhead and bursts of machine gun fire and loud booms echoed through the camp's narrow alleys.

A 19-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed Saturday, bringing to eight the number of Palestinians killed since Israeli forces moved into the camp Thursday night. The dead included two children. More than 70 Palestinians had been wounded.

The army said troops blew up three tunnels that military officials said the Palestinians might use to smuggle in more advanced weapons, like anti-aircraft missiles.

The raid was part of increased military activity following last weekend's suicide bombing that killed 20 Israelis in a restaurant in the port city of Haifa.

Late Saturday, Israeli troops fired on three Palestinian militants attempting to place an explosive device near the Jewish settlement of Morag in the Gaza Strip, the army said, adding that one militant was killed.