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Truce reached by Arafat and Qurei

No resignation, but questions of control persist

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The Palestinians resolved a 10-day political crisis when the prime minister withdrew his resignation yesterday, but there was no certainty that Yasser Arafat will give up his stranglehold over the security forces or that Palestinians will see any benefit in their daily lives.

Arafat and Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei embraced after emerging from a Cabinet meeting in which the Palestinian leader promised to let Cabinet ministers do their jobs. They agreed to enforce power structures already in place that Arafat until now has blocked.

The reconciliation was meant to calm days of protests denouncing corruption, kidnappings, and the seizure or sacking of police stations and Palestinian Authority buildings, mainly in the Gaza Strip.

The deal reinforced Arafat's reputation as the perennial survivor of Palestinian politics, even though the 74-year-old leader has been living for two years as a virtual prisoner in his Ramallah headquarters.

But the promises Arafat made to defuse the crisis were vague, and influential Palestinians said they were waiting to see real changes in the way power is wielded in the West Bank and Gaza.

"Today was a significant step in a long road," said Saeb Erekat, a Cabinet minister and peace negotiator. "Our people and the world will judge us in accordance with our deeds and not our words."

Qurei put forward his resignation 10 days ago, complaining that he lacked the power to deal with unrest in Gaza or to move against corruption within the Palestinian Authority.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell expressed skepticism over Arafat's promises, calling him "the master of the ambiguous statement or the statement with the yo-yo string on it. It gets pulled back."

"There have been different statements almost on a daily basis, and I'll listen to and track and watch these statements but what we are looking for is action not statements," Powell told reporters while flying from Hungary to Egypt, the first stops of a trip to Europe and the Middle East.

Egypt, which has pressed Arafat to surrender some powers and overhaul the security forces, welcomed Qurei's withdrawal of his resignation.

"This is something good. It is a useful development," Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said.

Egypt is seeking Palestinian reforms as a prerequisite to training Palestinian police in preparation for an expected Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Qurei tried to dispel skepticism that his differences with Arafat were merely papered over. "There will be actions on the ground," he said. "This is a new step toward reform and imposing the rule of law."

In Gaza City, many Palestinians were not convinced. "As a citizen, all that I am looking for is security and stability," said Yousef Saeed, 56, sitting outside his electrical shop smoking a water pipe. "We have to focus our attention on how to protect our people from the [Israeli] occupation and how to secure our cities and towns, not to have a power struggle."

Maher Shabaan, a 29-year-old architect, said, "I heard the news today, but there is nothing new. Since the beginning of the crisis we are hearing the same things every day. But who knows? Maybe this time they're serious."

While Arafat has survived many conflicts with Israel and with the rival Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, this challenge was worrying because it originated within his Fatah movement.

Last week, in an initial move to silence critics, Arafat agreed to consolidate his security forces into three branches, and yesterday he gave Qurei control over one of them.

Under the agreement, Qurei will have authority over the internal security forces -- the police, civil defense and preventive security -- while Arafat will control the Palestinian intelligence service and armed forces, Palestinian officials said.

Officials said Arafat also gave ground on corruption, agreeing to order the attorney general to open investigations against tainted officials.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz of Israel approved changes in the route of Israel's security barrier, bringing it closer to the 1967 boundary with the West Bank. The changes are aimed at complying with a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court that the structure's original route violated Palestinian rights and international law.

The map approved yesterday mostly involves a 25-mile area between the Jewish settlement of Elkana and Jerusalem, a security official said.

Also yesterday, two Palestinians -- a Hamas member and a bystander -- were killed when Israeli troops exchanged fire with Palestinians in Gaza City, Palestinian security officials said.

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