- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas threatened to quit as premier and resigned from a key post in Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement yesterday, reflecting turmoil within the Palestinian leadership over negotiations with Israel.

The move came just hours after Islamic militants claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that left an elderly Israeli woman dead, and threatened more attacks unless Israel agreed to release the thousands of Palestinian prisoners that it holds.

But the chief of Israeli military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, told Israeli television yesterday that Israel must not release prisoners tied to terrorism. “It is forbidden to free terrorists with blood on their hands,” he said.

Mr. Abbas has been facing strong pressure within his Fatah movement to adopt a tough line on the prisoner releases. In a letter to Mr. Arafat, he said he would step down as prime minister unless he gets clear instructions from Fatah over how to handle contacts with Israel.

Fatah officials said Mr. Abbas’ move might be a pressure tactic aimed at forcing Fatah members to give him greater flexibility in the talks.

Mr. Abbas’ leadership is strongly backed by the United States, which rallied to his support. “We stand behind Prime Minister Abbas,” State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said. He said Mr. Abbas’ leadership has produced important changes beneficial to the Palestinians.

The Bush administration sees Mr. Abbas as a moderate alternative to Mr. Arafat, who is accused of involvement in terrorist attacks against the Jewish state.

Mr. Abbas quit his post as deputy head of the Fatah Central Committee, the movement’s main executive body, headed by Mr. Arafat. Mr. Arafat and Mr. Abbas co-founded Fatah in 1965.

A Fatah official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Abbas sent a letter to Mr. Arafat threatening to step down as prime minister unless he gets clear instructions from Fatah over how to handle contacts with Israel.

Mr. Abbas also called off a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, set for today. Palestinian officials cited differences over the issue of Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners. There was no word on Mr. Abbas’ expected visit to the Israeli parliament later this week to lobby for the prisoner release.

When Fatah declared a six-month halt to attacks against Israelis on June 29, it demanded that Israel release all of the 6,500 Palestinian prisoners it is holding. Israel, which was not a party to the truce, agreed to free only about 400 as a goodwill gesture.

The Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which declared three-month truces, have threatened to renew their attacks unless Israel frees all the prisoners.

In Lebanon, a Hamas leader who led the negotiations that led to the truce, warned yesterday that the cease-fire would fall apart unless the prisoners are freed.

“I don’t think the truce will last for long because Sharon has not abided by its provisions,” Moussa Abu Marzouk said.

The claim of responsibility for the Monday night suicide blast also pointed to the prisoner issue. “Release the prisoners or the consequences will be grave,” warned a fax to the Associated Press carrying the Islamic Jihad logo.

The fax identified the bomber as 22-year-old Ahmed Yehyia from the village of Kufr Rai in the northern West Bank. The village is just south of the West Bank town of Jenin, which is known to be a hotbed of radical militants.

Islamic Jihad’s political leader in the West Bank, Sheik Bassam Saadi, said Jenin-based militants probably staged the attack in order to react to Israel’s decision not to release prisoners affiliated with the group. But he stressed that “Islamic Jihad … is committed to the [truce] and it remains so today.”

And Islamic Jihad’s top spokesman in Gaza, Nafez Azzam, also distanced the group from the claim, saying: “We have no knowledge about the claim of responsibility … and are still committed to this initiative and the truce. … We stand by our word and our commitments.”

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel would continue with peace efforts but has to protect its citizens. “We will continue operating against this infrastructure,” he said, referring to the Islamic Jihad.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said peace efforts would continue despite the bombing, but a more deadly attack would torpedo the process.

“We have an opportunity now that we must not miss, which we have to check out thoroughly and see if it is really genuine,” he told Israeli army radio. “Today was an attack … not a huge attack. Tomorrow, the same gang will make an attack with 20 dead and the [peace] process will end at that moment.”

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