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Peace Plan May Hinge on Security Force in Disarray

Devastated Palestinian units may not be a match for the militants' strength and passion.

June 03, 2003|Megan K. Stack and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — In the littered courtyard of their security barracks, listless Palestinian officers squat in the dirt to smoke cigarettes. They have neither guns nor uniforms; they nap in the weed-grown wreckage; their shorts and socks dangle from a sagging clothesline. Across the way, Israeli jets have turned their headquarters into heaps of broken rock.

Palestinian security services have been thoroughly mangled in 32 months of fighting with Israeli forces. All over the West Bank, communications systems and vehicles were destroyed and many officers arrested or killed. Files disappeared. The men are demoralized, disarmed -- and about to feel the weight of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process land squarely on their shoulders.

As Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas heads into summit meetings this week with President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, perhaps nothing poses a greater immediate threat to the peace process than the precarious question of Palestinian security. Before Israel agrees to make any major concessions, the Jewish state wants Abbas to "combat terror" by Palestinian militants, as spokesman Raanan Gissin puts it.

But the question is whether Abbas can do that -- and if he can, will he?

Even if their equipment had not been destroyed by the Israelis, security forces could find it very difficult to root out Palestinian guerrilla fighters and would-be suicide bombers who are entrenched in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And Abbas is reluctant to risk civil war by launching a military assault on factions that are extremely popular with many Palestinians.

Rather than confronting the militants, Abbas has entered long negotiations with Hamas, intent on coaxing the Islamic militants to hold their fire.

"This is the only open way we have," Abbas recently told an Israeli television reporter.

Israel isn't convinced. The Jewish state wants Abbas to organize militias to comb villages and cities for would-be assailants, disarm and arrest radicals, shutter political offices and put militant leaders on trial.

"We say the road to negotiations goes through the cessation of terror," Gissin said. "In order for us to be able to move forward, we have to see real steps taken."

Twice, Sharon has offered to pull his army out of the city centers of the West Bank or the northern countryside of the Gaza Strip. Such a move would give Abbas a chance to prove that his fledgling government is intent on curbing attacks by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and other radical factions.

Both times, Abbas urged Sharon to hold off. His security forces are not ready yet, and radical groups could use the vacuum to organize attacks that would doom the peace process. Instead, the Palestinian leader pleaded for patience while his envoys continued their lengthy cease-fire talks.

Abbas and his men have spent weeks in the Gaza Strip trying to convince Hamas to enter into a conditional truce for a limited time -- "just a few weeks," said Hamas political leader Abdulaziz Rantisi.

"It might avoid an internal confrontation among the Palestinians," Rantisi said, fingering worry beads in the spartan sitting room of his Gaza City home. "But one of the negatives is that it gives Sharon and the Zionists a chance to enforce the occupation and make it stronger."

Rantisi said he doesn't believe Abbas would arrest the Hamas leadership, as Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has done in the past to appease the Israelis. The last time Palestinian authorities came after Rantisi, in December 2001, an angry mob gathered outside his home and forced the security officers to turn him loose, he said.

If they try again, "they will succeed in inciting the Palestinian street," Rantisi said. "I don't believe they will do this again."

Palestinians tend to agree with Rantisi's assessment. "It would be a civil war," said Nabil Amr, a spokesman for Abbas.

Israelis are weary enough of the conflict that they would welcome any halt to bombings and shootings, but a cease-fire isn't enough to satisfy them for long.

Palestinians should use the lull to strip the militants of their guns and dismantle their infrastructure, they say, or the cease-fire is meaningless.

"Israel will never accept it -- not unless they're going to be disarmed," said Yaacov Peri, the former head of the Shin Bet intelligence agency. "Talk and promises are not sufficient, not when their strategic aim is to destroy Israel and build an Islamic state."

The Palestinian Authority has begun to take small steps. Abbas appointed Mohammed Dahlan, a Gaza native with a reputation for toughness, as his head of security. So far, Dahlan has mostly kept out of sight, working on a security plan that is reportedly heavier on bureaucratic reform than on dismantling militants' infrastructure.

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