JERUSALEM — Israel indicated today it would be willing to work with Ahmed Qureia, the candidate for Palestinian prime minister, despite his close ties with veteran leader Yasser Arafat.
Israeli troops today killed three Palestinians, including a 12-year-old boy, in a raid in the West Bank city of Hebron, the army said. One of those killed in the raid was the city's leader of the militant Hamas group, Ahmed Bader, Israel Army Radio reported.
Israel initially said after the weekend resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas that it would not deal with a successor hand-picked by Arafat. However, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's aides said today that Qureia could be a partner if he carries out the Palestinians' obligations under the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, including disarming militants.
Qureia said he will "not be under an Israeli dictate" and will only be guided by the Palestinian national interest. He did not elaborate, but was expected to stick to Abbas' policy of refusing to clamp down on militants.
Other Israelis remained sharply critical of Qureia.
Commenting on the changes, Israel's army chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, did not refer to Qureia by name, but said "there is an attempt now to reverse the process" of reform headed by Abbas, put forward a leadership will all paths leading to Arafat and "promote the logic of a temporary cease-fire, instead of an effort to dismantle the terror infrastructure."
Speaking at a counterterrorism conference, Yaalon also hinted Israel also could start targeting militant leaders from Syria to Lebanon to Iran who support Palestinian terror cells, saying "all leaderships should be held accountable."
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also told legislators: "We are not going to cooperate with people who are doing what Arafat says."
In the West Bank city of Hebron, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy was killed by shrapnel from an Israeli tank shell fired at a suspected militants' hideout, witnesses said. Soldiers also shot and killed two wanted militants hiding out in the seven-story apartment building, Israel Radio reported. The army declined comment.
Israeli troops stormed the apartment building today, using search dogs and knocking down doors in an apparent search of wanted men from the Islamic militant group Hamas.
A gun battle erupted and troops blew up a car, witnesses said. Later, soldiers fired several tank shells at the building, witnesses said. Thaher Siyouri, 12, who was watching the fighting with his family from the third-floor of a nearby building, was killed by shrapnel from a tank shell, doctors said.
Witnesses said the army sent two Palestinians into the building at one point, apparently to search it. Israel's Supreme Court has outlawed the practice of using Palestinian civilians as "human shields." The Israeli military had no immediate comment on the report.
Qureia, the Palestinian parliament speaker and one of the key people who helped negotiate the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo accord, was nominated Sunday by Arafat to replace Abbas.
Qureia has accepted the post in principle, but says Israel must take action on the road map, which envisions a Palestinian state in 2005.
Qureia said his first order of business would be negotiating a cease-fire with Israel. He warned that unless Israel lessens its hostility to Arafat and ends airstrikes on militant leaders, he'd be doomed to failure.
The nominee, who met with Arafat today for the second time in two days, said he will need the Palestinian leader's backing to govern. Qureia also met with several foreign diplomats and spoke by phone with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Raanan Gissin, a senior adviser to Sharon, said the Palestinian leadership must choose the path of peace if it wants Israel to cooperate.
"The name doesn't matter here ... the policy matters," Gissin told reporters traveling with Sharon to India. "If they will be willing to participate in the process ... they can always call us, they know the phone number."
Sharon's aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Qureia could be a partner.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday: "It will be critical that the new Cabinet continues to press for reforms and continues to fight terrorism."
Qureia urged Israel to lift its siege of Arafat, saying, "I want real changes on the ground to let me work for the implementation of the road map."
For nearly two years, Israel has confined Arafat to his West Bank headquarters with military sieges and threats that if Arafat goes abroad he won't be allowed to return.
Qureia is the No. 3 leader in Fatah, after Arafat and Abbas. Considered a moderate, the 65-year-old has maneuvered between Arafat and reform-minded legislators as parliament speaker.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Israel and the United States made a mistake in trying to sideline Arafat, and that this contributed to Abbas' ouster.
"The collapse was predictable and expected. To overlook Arafat, to corner him, was neither useful nor wise," he told the paper. "You can have reservations about him (Arafat) — we too have some — but he's the only man who can make concessions in the peace process and make his people accept them. So no prime minister, without Arafat's support, will be able to govern."
Abbas, appointed in April under Israeli and U.S. pressure, was unpopular among Palestinians precisely because he was backed by Israel and frequently wrangled with Arafat. He resigned after Arafat refused to put the security services under his control.