GAZA CITY (AFP) – Interior minister Hani al-Qawasmeh resigned from the Palestinian unity government on Monday amid the deadliest factional fighting in two months in a major blow to the fledgling administration.
Four people were killed in clashes between loyalists of president Mahmud Abbas’s secular Fatah faction and prime minister Ismail Haniya’s Islamist Hamas movement as a ceasefire announced late Sunday failed to take hold.
Qawasmeh, an independent whose appointment was the subject of marathon talks between the two coalition partners, charged he had not been granted adequate authority and accused the government of not taking security seriously.
“I resigned from my position because I am not willing to be a purely decorative interior minister without authority,” he told a news conference.
“I reached the conclusion the whole (security) situation is not being dealt with seriously… The combined force that has been agreed are opposing forces that are fighting as we speak,” he said.
The Palestinian government took office on March 17 following a landmark power-sharing deal between Fatah and Hamas, and was created precisely to end similar infighting that killed 100 Palestinians in the two preceding months.
With eight Palestinians dead in factional fighting since Sunday, Haniya’s cabinet ordered the immediate deployment in the Gaza Strip of security forces controlled both by Abbas and the interior minister under one leadership.
“The government decided today to deploy immediately security forces under control of the joint operation room and under the control of prime minister Ismail Haniya,” information minister Mustafa Barghuti told a news conference.
Adopting unusually strong language in vowing to tackle the security chaos endemic in the lawless territory, Barghuti added: “We will not let Gaza become a new Somalia. We will attack the security mess and beat it inside its home.”
Haniya urged Palestinians to protect the power-sharing agreement reached in Saudi Arabia and called Fatah and Hamas representatives to a meeting at his office later Monday.
The prime minister will be responsible for the interior ministry — one of several key portfolios that the power-sharing deal stipulated should be in the hands of an independent — until a permanent replacement is found.
Despite repeated promises from Palestinian leaders, security services have proved incapable of imposing law and order in the increasingly chaotic territory where kidnappings, clan clashes and factional feuding are rife.
Two Fatah activists were killed and a third Palestinian shot dead in Gaza City, while a civilian died in a market during Fatah-Hamas clashes in the southern town of Khan Yunis, security and medical sources said.
More than 50 people have been wounded in the two days of violence. The two sides accuse each other of starting the fighting.
A 40-year-old mother, who gave her name only as Um Ahmed and lives in the Makusi neighbourhood where clashes took place, said she endured a night of fear as residents screamed at gunmen to stop the shooting.
“The bullets broke windows, pierced the wall and into the bedroom. Our children were crying and we screamed for them to stop shooting. We saw two people killed in front of our building. We didn’t sleep all night,” she said.
Qawasmeh — a former civil servant and a political novice before acquiring one of the most important portfolios in government — had submitted his resignation three weeks ago but his request was rejected by Haniya.
Moin Rabbani, an expert on Palestinian affairs at the International Crisis Group think-tank, said the new government was now in jeopardy unless it acted more decisively to exert control and overcome factionalism.
“This government has proven unable to overcome endemic factionalism on one of the key issues that it’s meant to resolve, namely the security situation,” he told AFP by telephone from the West Bank political capital of Ramallah.
“Unless there is a real effort to resolve these issues, it could be the beginning of the end of this experiment and, should this government collapse, the situation could get very much worse.”