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The World

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

Palestinian officials have seldom been keen to fight groups like Hamas, which have fed on the anti-Israeli resentments fostered by the violent uprising. Beyond the blood and social ties that bind many security officers to the militants, there is a certain ideological kinship. As one Palestinian security officer in Bethlehem said, bristling: "We are under occupation here. We have a right to resist."

Many Palestinians also look at groups like Hamas as bodies of religious, charitable and social function rather than terrorist organizations.

Even if the Palestinians wanted to take on the radical groups, it's unclear that they could. About three-quarters of the national security officers are locked up in Israeli detention camps, according to Chief of Preventive Security Col. Rashid abu Shbak, and the others can scarcely leave home because of curfews and travel restrictions.

Nine out of 10 of the security service's offices have been destroyed, he said. West Bank officers are banned from carrying weapons or wearing uniforms.

Foreign mediators suggest the Palestinians, although undeniably crippled, could do more, especially in the Gaza Strip, which hasn't been reoccupied by the Israelis and where security services fared slightly better. It wouldn't be so hard to halt the rain of rockets fired into Israel, a Western diplomat said.

"Everyone recognizes that Palestinian capabilities are quite limited now, but they're not zero," the diplomat said. "We're not expecting miracles, but we're expecting ... something tangible on the ground."

Palestinians are often offended by the suggestion that their security officers should worry about protecting Israelis at a time when fellow Arabs are still dying in Israeli army raids.

During the last peace effort, which collapsed in 2000, Israeli and Palestinian security forces cooperated at first, Peri said, and Palestinians made a brief but sincere effort to jail militant leaders.

"But to tell you the truth," Peri said, "it was a short, short period."

These days, with Israelis and Palestinians still killing each other, the idea of cooperation seems remote. A restless mood hangs over the streets here, Israeli tanks groan through West Bank towns and in the eyes of many Palestinians, the radicals are heroes.

"Israel controls every town, every street, every village," said Zuhair Manasra, the West Bank's temporary head of preventive security. "But with all the force of the Israeli army, they didn't succeed in finishing the radicals."

Instead, said Manasra, who sat behind a polished desk under a gilt-framed portrait of Arafat, the Israeli occupation strengthened the militants. On the morning he spoke, little boys were scrambling in the streets outside his Ramallah office, throwing stones at Israeli tanks.

The hardest part, both sides agree, will be easing popular hatred. Skeptics believe it's impossible, that the damage has been too great.

The talk of peace rings hollow in the streets of Hebron, where Hamad Qawasmeh stood on a ledge and looked down on what used to be his uncle's house. The walls and roof had been shattered by Israeli dynamite.

"There is no peace process," Qawasmeh said.

Two weeks ago, just as the sun was sinking and Sharon and Abbas were preparing for their first summit meeting, Qawasmeh's 20-year-old cousin blew himself up in the streets of Hebron, killing a Jewish man and his pregnant wife. He was the first in a string of five suicide bombers.

Three of the young men came from Hebron -- Qawasmeh's cousin, his neighbor and his neighbor's friend from a university. The men were educated and came from prominent Arab families.

"They were smart students, with good lives ahead," said Mohammed Tamimi, who taught two of the boys in the university. "But they weren't kids. They knew what they were doing."

Qawasmeh works as a public relations specialist for the governor of Hebron. He has watched Israel's attempts to scour Hamas from the city, has seen the faction's top officials hauled away as its militants plunged deeper and deeper underground. None of it did any good, he said.

"We know resistance will bring more grief in the long run, but we're at the point where we'll actually go for it," he said. "As long as we're causing enough damage to the other side -- we're OK with that."


Stack reported from the West Bank and Trounson from the Gaza Strip. Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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