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Abbas under new pressure to improve security, quell internal strife

JERUSALEM—Palestinian lawmakers called on President Mahmoud Abbas to reshuffle his government on Monday after irate police officers firing guns in the air tried to disrupt the legislators' meeting in Gaza City.

Lawmakers gave Abbas two weeks to form a new government and revamp his security team following clashes between Palestinian police officers and Hamas gunmen that left three people dead on Sunday.

Several lawmakers urged Abbas to move quickly and decisively to head off a civil war.

"I am warning everybody about the dangers of an internal war in light of the security chaos," Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat said.

The lawmakers' demands reflected increasing impatience with Abbas to do more to bring a new sense of security and stability in the wake of Israel's decision to end 38 years of military rule in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian police and Hamas gunmen traded fire for a second day Monday in sporadic clashes in the Gaza Strip. On Sunday night, a police officer and two onlookers were killed during running street battles between the local police force and Hamas gunmen in Gaza City. Each side blames the other for instigating the confrontation.

On Monday, as lawmakers were meeting to consider a vote of no-confidence in the Palestinian government, dozens of police officers marched on the Palestinian Legislative Council building in Gaza City to demand more support in the battles. The officers, some firing guns in the air outside the compound, complained that they were outgunned by militants and needed more ammunition.

Abbas, who has banned militants from openly carrying weapons in the Gaza Strip, warned that allowing the situation to deteriorate further could provide critics with more fodder.

"How will the world, which says that we deserve a state, look at us if we continue on this path of internal war?" Abbas said on Palestinian television. "For sure they will say it is not worth a state."

After the protest, Palestinian lawmakers stopped short of toppling the government and instead gave Abbas two weeks to revamp his Cabinet and security team. If he fails to do so, lawmakers warned, they would press ahead with plans to force a no-confidence vote.

The lawmakers' moves were viewed as an attempt to oust Nasser Yousef, the Palestinian Authority's interior minister, whom some want to see replaced as head of security.

Abbas and lawmakers also voiced frustration with Hamas, which is facing growing pressure from all sides to curb its militant wing. The problems started late last month when an explosion during a Hamas rally killed at least 10 people. While Hamas accused Israel of launching a missile, the Palestinian Authority said the explosion was caused by an accidental detonation of Hamas weapons.

Hamas used the incident as an excuse to fire rockets into Israel, which sparked a weeklong Israeli offensive that included the resumption of targeted assassinations and a sweep that led to the arrest of hundreds of Hamas members.

On Monday, Abbas obliquely blamed Hamas for sparking the Israeli military campaign.

Hamas is also facing pressure from Israel to disarm. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has warned that Israel won't help Abbas run a smooth January election for new lawmakers if Hamas members run for office without disarming or renouncing violence.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed Najib in Ramallah and Mahmoud Habboush in Gaza City contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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