Palestinian Minister Quits over Gaza Crisis
By Eric Silver
May 16, 2007

The Palestinian Interior Minister has resigned in despair amid a surge of violence between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip.

Within hours of a truce brokered by Egypt on Sunday night, gunmen shot dead eight fellow Palestinians, including two local journalists, and wounded about 50. Four others had died in exchanges of fire on Sunday, in the worst clashes since February, when the two groups agreed under Saudi mediation to take their militias off the streets.

The resignation of Hani Kawasmeh left the national unity coalition, established two months ago, more fragile than ever. Mr Kawasmeh, an independent former academic, was appointed as a compromise between Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah President, and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Prime Minister. His task was to reform the warring security services and impose order. But neither side was prepared to dismantle its private army or take on the armed gangs that have brought anarchy to Gaza.

In his resignation press conference, Mr Kawasmeh accused both leaders of failing to support him. "From the beginning I faced obstacles that robbed the ministry of its powers and made my position empty, without authority," he said.

Bassam Eid, the director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, predicted a bleak future. "What's going on in Gaza today can be considered the biggest failure of the unity government," he said. "It will be impossible to impose any kind of security or to keep the Palestinian streets under order.

"The unity government is giving much more attention to external issues than to our internal problems. It is concentrating on winning international recognition; collecting more money to pay the salaries of Palestinian Authority workers; and pushing forward the peace process with Israel. But it is neglecting the violence on its own doorstep."

Mr Haniyeh took over temporarily as Interior Minister, but Fatah officials predicted that the government could collapse within days if the bloodshed did not stop. Each side blamed the other for the renewed violence.

Mustafa Barghouti, the Information Minister, announced in Ramallah last night that the President and Prime Minister had agreed on a new approach to restoring order. All security forces are to be deployed throughout the Gaza Strip under Mr Haniyeh's supervision. The forces will receive their orders from a joint command room. The government, he said, would exercise zero tolerance towards all those involved in lawlessness and crimes. Previous such agreements have collapsed within days, if not hours.

Two of those killed yesterday were an aide and a bodyguard of Maher Mikdad, Fatah's Gaza spokesman. The two dead journalists, Mohammed Abdo and Sleiman al-Ashi, worked for Falastine, a pro-Hamas newspaper. Their colleagues called for a protest strike by all local media personnel. Another man, killed in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis, was reported to be a civilian caught in crossfire.

Israel, which has refused to involve itself in the Palestinian unrest, stepped up activity to counter the continued daily firing of home-made Qassam rockets from Gaza at Sderot and other Negev border towns and villages. A military spokesman reported that seven had landed in the past three days alone. But the cabinet, still digesting the lessons of last summer's Lebanon war, resisted calls for a large-scale ground operation to reoccupy Palestinian territory evacuated in 2005.

Israeli forces are expected to target Islamic Jihad, a small fundamentalist faction which has claimed responsibility for most of the recent launchings.

n Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, warned that donations from the international community were urgently needed to avert a funding crisis in the Palestinian territories, as he pledged 3m for 16,000 Palestinian Authority workers. In Brussels, EU officials said efforts to set up a Palestinian fund allowing donors to send aid while formally maintaining their boycott of Hamas are close to being finalised.