Abbas orders reforms in Fatah security forces

Special to The Times

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ordered an overhaul of his security apparatus Friday after an inquiry panel held 60 officers responsible for its collapse in factional fighting that gave Hamas control of the Gaza Strip.

The changes are aimed at making the security forces more professional and strengthening them against any challenge by Hamas in the more populous West Bank. U.S. officials have pressed for such changes to advance the prospects for peace talks that Abbas and his more secular Fatah movement are seeking with Israel.

Hamas, an Islamic movement that calls for Israel’s destruction, has considerable popular support in the Fatah-dominated West Bank. The rival armed movements have clashed twice on university campuses there this month.

Nabil Amr, an Abbas advisor who sat on the nine-member inquiry panel, said those blamed for Fatah’s defeat in Gaza would be disciplined or court-martialed. He said they included officers up to the rank of brigadier.

About 40 Fatah officers have resigned, taken early retirement or been fired, officials said.


The panel was made up of security force officers, lawyers and politicians. It was led by Tayeb Abdel Rahim, Abbas’ civilian chief of staff.

After taking hundreds of hours of testimony from field commanders and soldiers, the panel concluded that Fatah’s forces in Gaza had been weakened by nepotism, infiltration by hostile elements and a practice of taking recruits motivated by economic need or factional loyalty rather than those who are best qualified.

“Rest assured that we will take this report as it is ... and implement it in its entirety,” Abbas said upon receiving the 200-page volume. “Whoever had shortcomings will get his punishment and whoever did his duty will be rewarded, so that we can turn a new page in our institutions.”

Amr said the “first step toward real reform” would be more stringent professional criteria for hiring in the various police and intelligence services that make up the security forces.

“We don’t want security forces built on a factional basis,” he told reporters.

Since the Palestinian Authority’s establishment in the West Bank and Gaza in the mid-1990s, its leaders have often pledged to reform the bloated security services but have not followed through. Abbas’ security services have about 80,000 members, and are built around a core of loyalists in the late Yasser Arafat’s Fatah guerrilla forces.

As many as 40,000 Fatah-led fighters were serving in Gaza when Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections in January 2006, formed a government and began building up a rival security force in the coastal territory.

Though numerically superior there, Fatah-led forces struggled during a year of sporadic clashes with Hamas and crumbled after four days of fighting last month. Fatah abandoned key positions, including Abbas’ Gaza compound, without a fight.

The inquiry panel’s report was not made public, but Amr said it criticized a lack of coordination among security branches during the fighting, which left about 150 people dead.

“There was no field leadership,” he said. “There were only individual initiatives.”

After reading the panel’s findings this week, Abbas decided to fire national security advisor Mohammed Dahlan, Palestinian officials said. Dahlan resigned Thursday, citing health reasons.

Dahlan was in Egypt during the fighting last month, reportedly for knee surgery, and was widely blamed for a lack of Fatah field leadership in Gaza. Officials said that he would not face disciplinary action.

A senior Hamas official, Sami abu Zuhri, said that Abbas, as commander in chief, should accept responsibility.

There was no indication that the report cast any blame on the president. Instead, Amr said, it found that security officials had failed to obey Abbas’ instructions to forestall a possible “coup” by Hamas, and that some had given him misleading information about Hamas’ strength and intentions.

Fatah’s defeat left a diplomatically isolated Gaza under Hamas control and the West Bank run by a new government appointed by Abbas. Hamas leaders have asked Abbas to reconcile with them, but he has refused to do so unless they give up military control of Gaza and agree to new elections.

The United States, other Western countries and Israel have promised aid to the West Bank but demanded that Abbas reform his Fatah movement and assert control of the security apparatus so it can stop irregular militias from attacking Israel.

Hamas’ armed wing is believed to have dozens of fighters in the West Bank. They are kept in check by Israeli patrols. But security analysts believe they are capable of undermining any cooperation or peace talks between Abbas and Israeli leaders.

Fatah security forces have arrested dozens of Hamas activists in the West Bank in the last month, many of them unarmed. But Hamas appears determined to show its political strength.

A sit-in by Hamas-allied students at An Najah National University in Nablus led to a brawl between Hamas and Fatah supporters Tuesday, drawing fire from Fatah security forces that killed a student. A similar clash this month resulted in the temporary closure of Birzeit University near Ramallah after Hamas staged a large rally to protest the arrests of three Hamas students.

Special correspondent Abukhater reported from Ramallah and Times staff writer Boudreaux from Jerusalem.