- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Yasser Arafat and leaders of his Fatah movement met yesterday to choose ministers in the new Palestinian government, and he reported progress in truce talks with Islamic militant groups.

Israel has rebuffed Mr. Arafat’s recent cease-fire offers, saying it will press ahead with its campaign against terror suspects until Palestinian forces begin dismantling the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups.

In the Gaza Strip, Israel staged its first major incursion in several months, killing Jihad Abu Shwairah, 34, a leader of the Hamas military wing, in a shootout in the Nusseirat refugee camp. Hundreds of soldiers were involved, an apparent signal to Hamas that Israel would not limit itself to air strikes in Gaza.

Israel was trying to arrest the Hamas militant, said an army commander identified only as Lt. Col. Ofer. When soldiers surrounded the house, Mr. Shwairah let off eight bursts of gunfire, seriously wounding one of the soldiers, Col. Ofer said. Two other soldiers were moderately wounded in the operation, the army said.

Israel has killed 13 Hamas members and six bystanders in air attacks in Gaza since mid-August when a Hamas suicide bombing killed 23 persons on a Jerusalem bus.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, the Fatah Central Committee met to begin choosing candidates for 15 of 23 seats in the new Cabinet. The procedure gives Mr. Arafat virtual control over the government of Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qureia. The remaining eight ministers would represent other Palestinian groups or independents.

The committee agreed on the new government’s platform, participants said, but decided to hold more meetings in coming days to decide on the final choice of Cabinet candidates.

Fatah is also trying to persuade Hamas to join the government, so far without success, said Abbas Zaki, a Fatah legislator.

Moussa Zabout, a Gaza physician with ties to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, said he has accepted an offer by Mr. Qureia to join the Cabinet, and that Hamas officials did not object to his taking the job.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, Mr. Arafat’s adviser, said Mr. Qureia would likely announce his Cabinet by Monday or Tuesday.

Mr. Arafat’s first prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, resigned Sept. 6 after power struggles with the Palestinian leader, a deadlock with Israel on a U.S.-backed peace plan, and the collapse of a unilateral truce called by militant groups in June.

Mr. Arafat had appointed Mr. Abbas reluctantly, caving under international pressure to share power. Mr. Qureia, who served as speaker of the Palestinian parliament, has a wider political base than Mr. Abbas and has said he does not intend to undercut Mr. Arafat.

Israel charges that Mr. Arafat is tainted by terrorism. Last week, after two Hamas suicide bombers killed 15 Israelis in one day, the Israeli security Cabinet said it would “remove” Mr. Arafat at an unspecified time, leaving open the possibility of expulsion or assassination. The decision set off international condemnation and a wave of renewed Palestinian support for Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Arafat, meanwhile, renewed his truce offer and said his envoys have made progress in talks with militant groups on halting attacks on Israelis. He told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot that Islamic Jihad is ready to declare a cease-fire and that Hamas is sending positive signals.

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