RAMALLAH, West Bank - The United States is planning to spend millions of dollars to train Palestinian security forces as part of a renewed effort to strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
American, Palestinian and Israeli officials said Monday that they’re fine-tuning a proposal that would send thousands of Palestinian forces loyal to Abbas to neighboring Jordan and Egypt for advanced training.
The initiative is intended to provide Abbas with critical support in his political and military confrontation with the well-armed Hamas hard-liners who’ve controlled the Palestinian Authority since elections early last year.
The militant Islamist Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah faction have fought in the Gaza Strip in recent weeks.
But there’s disagreement over whether to provide Abbas’ forces with arms. Critics have charged that military aid could end up fueling, not containing, the street fighting, which has claimed more than 100 Palestinian lives in the last two months.
A senior Bush administration official said late last week that the $86 million in security assistance for the Palestinians that the White House is requesting from Congress would be confined to non-lethal items, such as training.
But Brig. Gen. Majed Faraj, the head of military intelligence for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, said, "If they want to train the forces but not equip them, then there’s no point in training them."
Details of the attempt to strengthen Abbas emerged as the Palestinian Authority president prepared to meet with Hamas leaders this week in the Islamic holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The talks may be the best chance to negotiate a coalition government that’s capable of ending the street warfare and the international isolation that’s crippled the Hamas-led Palestinian government.
While both sides are expressing optimism about eventual agreement on a unity government, there’s already deep skepticism about the chances of a new deal ending the battles.
For two months, Fatah and Hamas have been engaged in an on-again, off-again war of attrition based largely in the Gaza Strip. Along with daylong gun battles, the two sides have kidnapped and executed rivals, set up roadblocks to search for adversaries and even attacked top Palestinian leaders’ homes.
Israel and the United States are increasingly concerned about Iranian support for Hamas. Iran has pledged $250 million to help the Hamas-led government weather nearly a year of international isolation that was imposed because it refuses to renounce its goal of destroying Israel. Only a fraction of that money is believed to have arrived so far.
Israel and Fatah officials also claim, without proof so far, that Iran is supplying Hamas with advanced training and weaponry in the Gaza Strip.
Those fears underlie the evolving plans to help Abbas train and equip his forces. This month, the White House asked Congress to release $86 million for Abbas; Israel already has freed $100 million of frozen Palestinian tax money.
Late last week, the State Department told Congress how it intends to distribute the $86 million. Much of it would go toward uniforms and communications supplies. The training and equipping would be done by U.S. government contractors. If Congress doesn’t object by mid-February, the plan will proceed, requiring only a final go-ahead from Israel. Israeli officials said that won’t be a problem.
Officials and diplomats in Washington said $35.5 million would be used to equip 8,500 members of the Palestinian National Security Force; $15.5 million to train an initial unit of about 670 personnel to handle civil disturbances; $26 million to shore up Abbas’ presidential guard; and $10 million to improve security at the Karni crossing between Israel and Gaza.
Pending final approval by the United States and Israel, Abbas could send thousands of troops to training centers in Jordan and Egypt, said Faraj, the Palestinian military intelligence chief. The current proposal would send four groups of 1,400 Palestinian security members for two months of training.
In Jordan, the troops are expected to go to a state-of-the-art training center near Amman that’s used to train thousands of Iraqi police.
The facility would be used to train counterterrorism units; other troops would be sent to Egypt to learn how to handle urban warfare, said Brig. Gen. Sabri Tumezi, who handles international relations for Palestinian Preventative Security services, an intelligence and counterterrorism agency, in the West Bank.
Like Faraj, Tumezi said that the training would be largely useless unless Israel and the United States allow the Palestinian trainees to receive arms.
The two leaders said the issue could be resolved easily if the Israeli military returned large caches of weapons that it confiscated from the Palestinian Authority during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
"We don’t want anything we didn’t already have," Tumezi said. "We just want what was already ours."
Israeli and American officials declined to comment on the record. But the Israeli government has long argued that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are saturated with weapons and that the problem is that most of them are in the hands of unaccountable militant groups.
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