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Palestinian Police Face the Enemy Within

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Times Staff Writer

Abu Salim, an earnest, cleanshaven young Palestinian police sergeant, says he joined the force to protect and serve his people. His elder brother shares those goals, he says.

But his brother is a fugitive member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Palestinian militant group responsible for hundreds of deadly attacks against Israelis. And Abu Salim says that if he were called upon to arrest his sibling or other wanted men, he would refuse.

The 35,000-strong Palestinian security forces are supposed to be the centerpiece of a bold attempt by the new Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, to quell attacks by groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which for more than four years have waged a relentless war on Israel.

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Although violence ebbed after Abbas sent his officers into the streets last week, enormous obstacles stand in the way of his plan to harness a security force that has little real sense of its priorities, let alone its loyalties.

Made up of no fewer than 13 branches, the Palestinian security services are riddled with internal rivalries and beset by disorganization. They are short on weapons and equipment, with ranks thinned, bases destroyed and morale sapped by a conflict in which many find themselves unwitting combatants.

Like Abu Salim, who did not want his full name used, many members of the security services feel a kinship with the militants, regardless of whether they are literally family. The Palestinian security forces, created under the Oslo interim peace accords of the early 1990s, were conceived as a means of providing respectable employment to young street fighters who had cut their teeth in the first Palestinian uprising, from 1987 to 1993.

From the earliest months of the current conflict, Israeli troops regarded any armed Palestinian as a threat, even uniformed police officers.

“We were a target, and an easy one,” said Capt. Mohammed, an 11-year veteran of the Palestinian preventive intelligence service. Like other low- to mid-ranking officers interviewed, he did not want his name used because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

The captain said two fellow officers were killed and more than a dozen injured in 2002 when his post in downtown Gaza was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike. Later, he lost three fingers when he and his men were caught in an exchange of fire between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.

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“There is this idea that we are supposed to work with the Israelis,” he said, toying with the black glove he wears to cover his mangled right hand. “How can we trust them not to just shoot us on sight? They’ve done it before. We think they’ll do it again.”

The Palestinian security forces, however, may be their own worst enemy.

Feuds among rival security chiefs, who often command loyalty based on patronage or clan ties, regularly spill over into shootouts and abductions, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

Some branches of the service so loathe one another that straying into the wrong patch of territory without a full complement of armed escorts would be deadly. Particularly at odds are the preventive security and militant intelligence branches, which have attacked one another with grenades and gunfire.

In many ways, the fragmented security forces are a legacy of Yasser Arafat. The veteran Palestinian leader, who died Nov. 11, was a master at playing one commander against another, keeping each one guessing as to whether he was in favor or on the outs.

The late Palestinian Authority president played a tireless game of embracing and repudiating powerful figures such as the West Bank security chief, Jibril Rajoub, and Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, who are still waiting to find their places in the new order under Abbas.

Because chaos served his purposes, Arafat resisted no reform as adamantly as he did any streamlining of the security forces.

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Arafat’s refusal to allow the appointment of any commander who did not report directly to him was a major reason for Abbas’ angry departure from his post as prime minister.

Today, Abbas and other Palestinian officials say there is no way to stem growing lawlessness, particularly in Gaza, without a strong and well-armed security force.

But some Israelis are skeptical that the Palestinians can be relied on to keep internal order, let alone quell attacks against them.

“All these promises about what the Palestinian forces can do are like a check that can bounce at any moment,” said David Hacham, an Israeli reserve colonel who advises the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Palestinian issues. “With what there is to work with, it’s hard to believe there can be real progress on the ground.”

Abbas is preoccupied with the leading Palestinian militant factions, seeking to persuade them to give up attacks. Persistent reports have suggested that one means of persuasion might be to offer the gunmen jobs in one of the security branches.

Although such a step might keep angry, unemployed young men off the streets, it would also add to the already blurry distinction between those on the right and wrong sides of the law in the Palestinian territories, some observers say.

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Israel believes that entire branches of the security service are thoroughly infiltrated by militants. One Gaza-based group, the shadowy Popular Resistance Committee, is made up of many current and former members of the security services, and the group is thought to have used its knowledge of installations such as military bases and border crossings to plan attacks.

“Abu Mazen is determined to instill order, and will do it with whatever means he has,” said Hisham Abdel Razek, the Palestinian Cabinet minister in charge of prisoner affairs, referring to Abbas by his nickname. “But he’s not a magician; he doesn’t have Moses’ staff to wave and fix everything. He needs time.”

What direction the Palestinian security forces take will probably be greatly influenced by a larger struggle within Arafat’s Fatah movement that pits an entrenched older leadership against young, reform-minded types such as Dahlan, who were born and reared in Gaza and the West Bank and did not spend decades in exile like the founding fathers of the Palestinian movement.

“Abu Mazen will do his best to avoid a violent internal conflict, but the key to this is not Hamas, as commonly thought, but rather with the militant elements of Fatah,” said Israeli analyst Reuven Paz of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “There is intergenerational tension in Fatah between the generation of Abu Mazen and those who were raised here in the territories, and who enjoy the prestige and status of the armed struggle with Israel.”

Abbas has been careful over the years to maintain cordial relations with the major militant factions, but he is well aware that he is on shaky ground in Gaza.

In 1996, when Arafat was probably at the height of his power, he tried to openly confront Hamas in its Gaza stronghold, arresting dozens of its leaders. Hamas not only fought back militarily but also enjoyed a surge in popular support from Palestinians who cheered its defiance of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, which was widely viewed as corrupt and ineffectual.

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“There’s no way we can take them on in a direct fight, even if we wanted to,” said Capt. Mohammed, the preventive security officer. “They’re better armed than we are. And even if they agree to a truce, and keep it for a long time, they’ll never give up their weapons.”

Even Israeli officials acknowledge that a head-on confrontation between the Palestinian security forces and groups such as Hamas could backfire on Abbas -- and in turn, on Israel.

“Israel has no interest in causing a Palestinian civil war,” said Giora Eiland, the director of Israel’s National Security Council. “But it does expect to see real change and true steps to block the terrorists’ capabilities.”

Israel’s security establishment was impressed, however, by the falloff in violence in Gaza after Abbas ordered Palestinian forces into the field last week. More deployments are expected in the coming week, including in the volatile Rafah area in southern Gaza.

Continued calm, analysts say, could make it harder for Hamas to risk new strikes. If Israel takes steps as a result of the quiet to ease Palestinian daily life, such as removing checkpoints, the Palestinian public might resent attacks that put matters back on their former footing.

A deployment of Palestinian forces alone has symbolic significance, said military analyst Roni Shaked of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

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“If it works out the way Abu Mazen wants it to, he has succeeded in painting Hamas into a corner, in a pretty embarrassing way,” Shaked said. “And without even using force.”

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