Arafat Opens Palestinian Parliament, Police Raid Hamas Institute
JERUSALEM (AP) _ Surrounded by lawmakers his people had chosen to shape their future, Yasser Arafat accused Islamic radicals on Thursday of trying to ``kill the Palestinian dream″ just as it was beginning to come true.
Opening the historic first session of an elected Palestinian lawmaking council, Arafat lashed out at the Hamas campaign of suicide bombings that has killed 61 people since Feb. 25 and put the peace process with Israel in jeopardy.
But he also attacked Israelis for trying to halt the terror by barricading Palestinians inside their towns, saying the blockade was ``like the occupation come back again.″
Laying out an agenda for the 88 legislators gathered in a windowless hall, he said the top priority was ``to keep the peace and make it stronger.
``We must fight the terrorists and radicals on both sides,″ he said.
The opening of the parliament _ the first time an elected Palestinian legislature met on Palestinian soil _ was supposed to be a step toward peace with Israel. The bombings have instead revived Israeli fears of Palestinians and produced demands for Arafat to crush the militants.
On Thursday, Palestinian police and Israeli troops worked in tandem to try to track down radicals from the Hamas group involved in four deadly explosions that killed 61 people in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv.
As the Israelis raided a Hamas-run cultural center in Jerusalem and seized files and computers, Palestinian police arrested the center’s director, Sheik Jamil Hamami, and took him to their headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
In an effort to illustrate Arafat’s determination to wipe out terror cells, Palestinian police in Gaza City displayed pistols, assault rifles and material for making bombs and grenades _ all seized in raids on Hamas hideouts since the bombings started Feb. 25.
Ghazi Jabali, head of the police in Gaza, said 500 men have been arrested in the West Bank and Gaza in the campaign to track down the bomb makers.
``We are now following anyone who has any kind of weapon,″ said Khaled Kidra, attorney general of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.
Clearly, the police raids and statements by Palestinian officials were meant to show that Arafat was cracking down on Hamas. But Palestinian police have detained only five of the 13 top Hamas leaders Israel wants arrested as one of its conditions for continued peacemaking.
The day’s events clearly illustrated the conflicting forces pulling Arafat apart _ his desire to preserve his accords with Israel without appearing too submissive to Israeli demands.
The parliamentary session had all the trappings of independence: the Palestinian flag, the national anthem, an honor guard and Arab and Western dignitaries to lend legitimacy to the council.
Arafat desperately needed to surround himself with such symbols at a time when Israeli raids in the West Bank have eroded his authority among Palestinians.
But the suggestion of independence was belied by Israel’s pressures on Arafat and by the Israeli army blockade of West Bank and Gaza towns _ the harshest part of the crackdown on bomb suspects.
The roadblocks meant legislators from the West Bank had to be escorted to Gaza across Israel by Israeli border police Wednesday night. And though Israel allowed movement of Palestinians during the day Thursday, the West Bank lawmakers had to rush home before dusk.
Still, the opening of the 88-member legislature, elected on Jan. 20, showed how far things have come since the Israel-PLO talks started three years ago.
At the session, lawmakers elected Ahmed Qureia as the parliament speaker. Three years ago, Qureia was in exile with Arafat in Tunisia; later he became the Palestinians’ chief negotiator with Israel.
One of the other lawmakers is Intissar Wazir, whose husband Khalil, known as Abu Jihad, was the PLO’s chief military leader. He was assassinated in Tunis in 1988, apparently by Israeli agents.
Israel TV said Arafat planned to convene the PLO parliament-in-exile this month to revoke clauses in the PLO charter calling for Israel’s destruction.
According to the Israel-PLO accords, the clauses must be revoked within two months of the first session of the Palestinian legislature.
Peres has threatened to delay Israel’s pullout from Hebron, planned for late March, until the pledge is fulfilled. Hebron is the last Palestinian city still under Israeli control.
The parliament-in-exile, which includes delegates from the elected parliament and delegates living outside Palestinian lands, must approve any changes to the charter.
Some members of that body, the Palestine National Council, have expressed reservations about modifying the charter, saying Israel should first recognize the Palestinians’ right to statehood.
The bombings have brought new strains among Israelis, too.
The opposition Likud party accused Peres’ government on Thursday of conspiring with the Palestinians to make political capital from a statement by the man convicted of plotting three of the four recent suicide attacks.
In an interview with Israel TV broadcast Wednesday, Mohammed Abu Wardeh said Hamas wanted Likud to win the Israeli elections to help stop the peace process.
Likud called the broadcast ``a transparent and miserable provocation″ by the government. Peres’ Labor party, struggling to hold on to power in May 29 elections, called that charge absurd.
Furthermore, the arrest of an Israeli Arab politician on suspicion he aided families of Hamas radicals raised more fears among Israelis about the loyalty of the country’s Arab minority.
Suleiman Ahmad Agbarieh, deputy mayor of Umm-el-Fahm, was ordered held for four days while police investigate charges he helped to send millions of dollars to families of Hamas members who were killed or deported from the West Bank and Gaza.
Israelis’ distrust of the Arab minority was aroused anew this week by the arrest of an Israeli Arab accused of driving the latest suicide bomber to Tel Aviv. The bomber killed himself and 13 others outside the city’s busiest shopping center.