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Saturday, 18 May, 2002, 21:26 GMT 22:26 UK
Palestinian ministers 'ready to resign'
Arafat
Arafat: Under pressure from Palestinian parliament
Palestinian cabinet ministers have reportedly said they are willing to resign if it will help their leader, Yasser Arafat, reform the Palestinian Administration.

Palestinian officials say up to 20 ministers have made the offer, which has not yet been put in writing. Details of the offer - and any conditions they have set - are not yet clear.

Leading Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Mr Arafat had rejected the offer.

We put our destiny in the hands of the president. If he decides that our resignations would help the reforms, then we are in favour of this

Hassan Asfour
Cabinet minister
The announcement comes on the eve of a meeting of the Palestinian electoral commission to discuss the first steps towards holding elections which Mr Arafat has promised.

The Palestinian parliament has the streamlining of the cabinet, in the wake of Israel's six-week military offensive against Palestinian militias in the West Bank.

Israel has demanded a major restructuring of the Palestinian Authority and its security forces, along with a cessation of Palestinian violence, as conditions for resuming peace negotiations.

Stormy meetings

Cabinet Minister Hassan Asfour, said: "We put our destiny in the hands of the president.

"If he decides that our resignations would help the reforms, then we are in favour of this, and we will follow President Arafat's decision. If not, the situation will remain as it is."

Two children, one draped in a Palestinian flag, walk in the camp
Mr Arafat's authority has sagged since the Israeli incursions
Mr Erakat told the Arab satellite news channel Al-Jazeera that all 34 cabinet ministers had "put their resignations at the disposal of President Arafat". One minister has already resigned.

Palestinian sources have reported stormy meetings in which unprecedented criticism is being voiced at the Palestinian leader.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley says there are even suggestions that it is time for him to take on a more symbolic role.

Elections endorsed

Palestinian legislators have asked Mr Arafat to present a new cabinet for approval within 45 days. Mr Arafat has not responded to the demand.

Parliament also asked for new presidential and parliamentary elections by early 2003.

Mr Arafat responded by saying he endorsed elections within six months, provided Israeli troops withdrew to positions they held before the outbreak of fighting 20 months ago.

The militant Islamic group Hamas hinted on Saturday that it could take part in elections.

The extremist group is second only in popularity to Mr Arafat's Fatah movement and could post a formidable challenge at a time when his popularity is at a low point.

Militant campaigners

The election of members of Hamas or other militant groups to the Palestinian parliament would be a massive setback to the already faltering peace process.

Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said: "These are organisations that have stated very clearly that they want the destruction of Israel.

"Would you imagine that a terrorist group would run for election in the United States or any other democracy?" Gissin asked. "Who are you going to negotiate with then?"

So far, Mr Arafat's only challenger is Abdel Sattar Qassem, a Palestinian political scientist who says he will run on an anti-corruption platform but has no local base of support.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Caroline Hawley
"Yasser Arafat is under growing pressure to reform his authority"
See also:

18 May 02 | Middle East
EU 'strikes deal' on militants
16 May 02 | Middle East
Palestinian MPs call for elections
15 May 02 | Middle East
Arafat commits to Palestinian reform
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