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Palestinian rift simmers as council meets

Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Yasser Arafat are locked in a power struggle.
Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Yasser Arafat are locked in a power struggle.

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Yasser Arafat
Mahmoud Abbas

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- The Palestinian Legislative Council convened Thursday with a split simmering between its two leaders.

Officially, the council session is a chance for Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the achievements of his first 100 days in office -- achievements mainly in the areas of financial reform and accountability.

What most observers will be looking for, however, is evidence of the rift between Abbas and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The council session could result in a vote of confidence in Abbas' Cabinet, though Abbas' security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, said he doesn't believe that will happen. There have also been suggestions that Abbas and his Cabinet will resign if he's not given more powers to do his job effectively.

"All the options are open," Dahlan told CNN. "Personally, I am not thinking of resigning at all, because it means that I will be running away ... but for sure, the Cabinet might consider taking such a step."

In an off-camera interview with CNN Tuesday, Arafat waved off suggestions of a deep rift with Abbas, though there remain differences between them on how to proceed, particularly with security forces.

Arafat has retained control over Palestinian uniformed police and has appointed a new security chief. The United States, which led the effort to draft the Middle East "road map" for peace, has said Arafat's refusal to give Abbas control of all Palestinian security is hindering the prime minister's efforts to move ahead on the plan.

The road map -- backed by the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia -- aims to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establish an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has called on Arafat to cede security authority to Abbas, but so far, the Palestinian president has refused.

"This is an operational problem that has to be solved," Dahlan told CNN, "and an agreement should be reached between President Arafat and the prime minister, because this would be beneficial to the Palestinian Authority and to the peace process."

Dahlan said internal Palestinian feuds are a "Palestinian tradition" and one of the worst traits of Palestinian politics over the past 40 years, but he's sure the disagreement between Abbas and Arafat will eventually fade.

Still, the United States continues to try to sideline Arafat, who has been a virtual prisoner in his Ramallah compound since Israeli troops moved into the city in December 2001.

"Mr. Arafat has not been playing a helpful role," Powell told reporters Wednesday. "And if he wanted to play a helpful role, he would be supporting Prime Minister Abbas, not frustrating his efforts."

Arafat told CNN Tuesday that recent Israeli military action against Palestinian militants has killed the road map, and he said there is no prospect of militant groups like Hamas resuming a declared cease-fire with Israel. (Full story)

Powell responded to Arafat's remark by saying, "We didn't deal with Yasser Arafat when we were putting the road map together, and so his comments don't mean a whole lot to me."

While the United States has supported Abbas in his role as the Palestinian leader, the Israeli government remains reluctant to work with him, Dahlan complained.

"From day one, [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's government put obstacles in front of us and has been trying to destroy the political future of this Cabinet," Dahlan said. "The Israeli government is interested in keeping President Arafat weak and Mahmoud Abbas even weaker."

The more violent battle raging these days is between Israel and Palestinian militants. Since Hamas claimed responsibility for an August 19 terrorist bus bombing in Jerusalem, which killed 21 people, the Israeli government has declared an "all-out war" against Hamas and has carried out half a dozen "targeted killings" of Hamas militants and officials.

Those targeted killings have killed 12 Hamas figures and left another one brain dead and on life support.

The bus bombing occurred despite a self-declared cease-fire, or "hudna," by Palestinian militant groups.

A senior Israeli official said Wednesday that Israel would disregard a second unilateral cease-fire by Palestinian militant groups if they declared one, but it could halt attacks on Hamas leaders if they renounce violence.

"There can't be a hudna two. There won't be a hudna two," the official said. "We've been through the hudna experiment and the hudna experiment failed."

Asked whether Israel would halt its attacks if Hamas were to give up violence and become a solely political entity, the official replied, "If Hamas declares they are giving up violence and are becoming a political entity, then there's reason to discuss this matter."

Palestinian security sources say Hamas is desperately looking for a face-saving way out, perhaps a renewal of the cease-fire.

The Israeli official, too, said Hamas appears to be thinking twice about launching attacks amid the threat of Israeli action. "They want to survive," he said.

That's not the view of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, who vows the group will strike back.

"Israel and its people will pay a big price for this," he told CNN. "We hope that afterwards, the people of Israel will wake up and punish their own leaders for their actions."

Echoing Arafat's words, Yassin said the Israelis "have attached so many conditions to the road map, it is clear they want to kill it. Israel makes excuses, but it is the real roadblock to peace."

Israeli officials have said in recent days that they are ready to launch an invasion of Gaza with a brigade of 3,000 troops if Hamas continued firing rockets into Israel.

While Dahlan declined to confirm it, a well-placed Palestinian security source said Hamas has been given an ultimatum: There will be no serious talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority until Hamas dismantles its military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, and collects all illegal weapons held by the militant group. (Full story)

CNN Correspondent Michael Holmes in Ramallah, Correspondent Chris Burns in Tel Aviv, and Correspondent Matthew Chance in Gaza contributed to this report.

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