Arafat Presents New Cabinet
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RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ Yasser Arafat presented a new Cabinet on Tuesday and said he remains committed to internal reform, but he accused Israel of demanding change in his government as a pretext for destroying the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinians’ parliament was expected to approve the 19-member Cabinet, even though it closely resembles the Cabinet that legislators forced to resign earlier this month.
``We need Palestinian reform that helps Palestinian objectives,″ Arafat told legislators. ``The Israeli government is using the reform issue as a way of destroying the Palestinian Authority.″
In a wide-ranging speech, Arafat also reiterated that he opposes attacks on civilians, whether Palestinians or Israelis. ``We believe that everybody has a right to live. We do condemn terrorist attacks, which target civilians, everywhere in the world,″ he said.
Israel accuses Arafat of having done nothing to prevent attacks by Palestinian militias or even encouraging some acts of terror.
Palestinian officials say a fledgling challenge to Arafat’s power by Palestinian politicians was crushed by Israel’s 10-day siege of Arafat’s headquarters _ in the wake of a deadly suicide bombing in Israel September _ and by repeated U.S. and Israeli demands that Arafat be sidelined.
In meetings with rebellious legislators, Arafat has portrayed a vote against his government as a show of support for Israel and the United States.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops killed a suspected Islamic militant in his hide-out and demolished the home of another Hamas suspect. Soldiers also dismantled an illegal Jewish settlement outpost without meeting resistance. Last week, settlers scuffled with troops trying to drag them away.
The growing dispute over settlements is threatening to bring down Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s coalition government and force early elections.
Sharon has said he will try to form a narrow coalition of right-wing and religious parties if his junior partner, the moderate Labor party, votes against the 2003 state budget Wednesday, as expected, to protest what it sees as excessive spending on settlements.
But Sharon’s coalition chairman, Zeev Boim, said Tuesday that ``the more realistic scenario is that there will be no choice for the prime minister but ... to seek early elections within 90 days.″
Sharon’s Cabinet secretary, Gideon Saar, meanwhile, said that a new U.S.-backed peace plan in its current form is not acceptable because it is based, in part, on an Arab proposal calling for an Israeli withdrawal from all occupied lands and affirming the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have expressed reservations about the new plan formulated by the so-called Quartet of international mediators _ the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union. However, Saar’s comments marked the first time an Israeli official said outright the proposal was unacceptable without major changes.
Speaking Tuesday, Arafat blamed Israel for ongoing bloodshed, saying it has sabotaged his efforts to restore calm with its military strikes against the Palestinians. He said he still favored peace.
``The intefadeh of the people and its rejection of the occupation and settlements doesn’t mean a rejection of comprehensive peace, because peace is our strategic choice and the choice of the Arabs,″ Arafat said.
The Palestinian leader also alleged that Israeli troops tried to kill him when they besieged his compound. He said he was not afraid of death, repeating: ``Welcome martyrdom, welcome martyrdom, welcome martyrdom.″
Israel has said it has no intention of harming Arafat, although some Israeli officials have said he should be expelled.
The new Cabinet that Arafat presented brought in five new ministers and firing three. The most important appointment was that of a new interior minister, Hani al-Hassan, a senior member of Arafat’s Fatah movement. The new interior minister will oversee reforms in the Palestinian security services.
In overnight military strikes, troops tracking a Palestinian fugitive raided the West Bank town of Tubas and surrounded a two-story house, said a resident, Samir Sawafta.
Sawafta said he heard soldiers calling on the fugitive in Arabic to surrender. He said he heard shooting and saw troops later carry a body wrapped in a blanket out of the building.
The dead man was identified as Assem Sawafta, 19, a member of the Hamas military wing Izzedine al Qassam. Israel Radio said Assem Sawafta had been hiding in the attic of the house which belonged to his uncle. Samir and Assem Sawafta were members of the same clan, but not closely related.
In the West Bank town of Jenin, troops blew up the two-story family house of another member of the Hamas military wing, witnesses said. The demolition left 15 people homeless, residents said.
Five homes have been razed in Jenin since Israeli troops reoccupied the town Friday in response to a suicide bombing by Hamas members from Jenin that killed 14 Israelis.