Underlying motive is to counter strength of Hamas, analysts say
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Thursday, December 14, 2006
(12-14) 04:00 PST Jericho, West Bank -- U.S. officials training Palestinian security forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas are emphasizing urban anti-terrorist techniques as part of a systematic effort to bolster Abbas and his Fatah loyalists to counter the political success of Hamas, according to Palestinian analysts and officers receiving the training.
But one officer who has received the training says the purpose of the newly beefed-up force is to protect the Palestinian president from assassination.
The Presidential Guard, made up entirely of Fatah activists loyal to Abbas, has been increased to 1,000, up from about 90 officers under his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. A new black-uniformed rapid deployment force -- Al-Tadakhwal -- has recently been formed to respond to emergencies. The Presidential Guard is commanded by Gen. Munir Zobi in the West Bank and Gen. Haj Musbar in Gaza.
Officers have also received training from U.S. officials inside the Mukata, the presidential compound in Ramallah that contains Abbas' office and Arafat's grave.
The Chronicle has obtained a training manual distributed to officers of the Al-Haras Al-Rayassi, Abbas' Presidential Guard, during a two-week course held in Jericho earlier this year at which the chief instructor introduced himself as a U.S. Secret Service officer who served during the Reagan administration. The manual, titled "Advanced Protective Operations Seminar," is emblazoned with the logo of the Counterterrorism Training Group, which includes the U.S. government seal.
Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth after news of the training sessions leaked out that since Iran is helping arm and fund Hamas political and military activities, the United States wants to prevent "moderate forces" in the Palestinian territories from being eliminated.
"We are involved in building up the Presidential Guard, instructing it, assisting it to build itself up and giving them ideas. We are not training the forces to confront Hamas," Dayton told Yedioth. "Hamas is receiving money and arms from Iran and possibly Syria, and we must make sure that the moderate forces will not be erased," Dayton said.
But one of the officers trained by Dayton's team said the American general is being naive and does not understand internal Palestinian politics.
"Ever since the Hamas election victory, security has been tightened around (Abbas)," said the officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The fear is that someone from Hamas will try to assassinate him, and we must be ready to deal with this threat. The main threat to the security of the president is from the militia of Hamas."
When the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994 with a mandate to handle its own policing, Arafat set up a string of 14 overlapping and often competing security forces -- each one controlled by a rival political or former guerrilla chieftain, but all of them ultimately loyal to him and his Fatah party. Arafat used these forces to control political opponents like Hamas and also maintain loyalty through patronage and the payment of salaries.
The United States had helped train the initial security forces, but ended its aid when the Palestinian uprising called the intifada began in September 2000. During the intifada, many trained security officers engaged in attacks on Israeli targets or joined the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Fatah militant wing.
Earlier this year, after it assumed control of the Palestinian government following its success in January's parliamentary elections, Hamas announced the formation of its own security service, the Executive Force, and placed Jamal abu Samhadana, a prominent militant, at its head. Samhadana was killed in an Israeli raid in June.
Abbas had denounced formation of the new police force as unconstitutional, saying that only the Palestinian president could command armed forces. On Dayton's advice, the U.S. training program began again over the summer, but so far it has been limited to the officers directly responsible for the personal security of Abbas and his VIP guests, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit to Jericho last month.
Training seminars for the Presidential Guard are being held in various locations around the West Bank. A two-week course called the Advanced Protective Operations Seminar was recently held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jericho, where participants were instructed in counterterrorism techniques. The manual from that course gave detailed advice on a range of security issues from airport and event security planning to securing motorcades, residences and offices. Suggested tactics included the use of "protective intelligence," "counter-snipers" and a "counter-assault team."
An official from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv traveled to Ramallah earlier this year to instruct about 60 Presidential Guard officers in securing vehicles and sites against bomb threats and suspect devices. The session, according to one of the participants, lasted about two hours and took place in a large meeting room close to Abbas' office in the Mukata compound.
"We are helping the Palestinian Authority security services to enhance their abilities, concentrating on the Presidential Guard," said a U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We are also helping the Presidential Guard take on expanded responsibilities, like security at the border crossings in Gaza."
The American effort is part of a broader international package of support to bolster Abbas loyalists as Hamas threatens to increase its parallel Executive Force to 6,000 men. Training for Fatah forces also is provided by Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. Britain, Spain and the European Union have provided communications equipment, vehicles and logistical support.
But there are fears the American assistance program could backfire.
"The U.S.' involvement in attempts to bring down the Hamas government has only made things worse for Abbas and Fatah," wrote Khaled Abu Toameh, Palestinian affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, in a commentary titled "Guns and Poses."
"The U.S. believes that by giving Abbas more rifles and cash, it would be able to bring about regime change. But in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no shortage of weapons. Tons of explosives, rifles and missiles are smuggled across the Egyptian border nearly every day. What the Palestinians need is not more rifles -- which they never use to stop Hamas, Islamic Jihad or other militias anyway -- but good governance and credible leaders," he wrote.
"American meddling in Palestinian affairs is backfiring, because many Palestinians are beginning to look at Abbas and Fatah as pawns in the hands of the U.S. and Israel. This does not help Abbas and moderate secular Palestinians, who are facing the dangers of the growing power of Islamic fundamentalism."
Abbas' guard members wear distinctive green uniforms with a shoulder patch bearing the name of the force and the Palestinian flag. Each officer carries a semiautomatic Kalashnikov assault rifle and Motorola communications equipment. Plans to replace the outdated Kalashnikovs of the Presidential Guard with lightweight Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine guns were scrapped because of Israeli opposition.
"It's a great shame the Israelis wouldn't allow us to have the new equipment. In a hostage situation inside a building, the MP5 is much more effective than the Kalashnikov, which is too large to handle indoors and has a very strong recoil," said the Presidential Guard officer who had been through the training.
The Israelis, this officer said, have refused to permit the supply of new weapons, tear gas and flak jackets to the Presidential Guard, based on their experience in the past when the CIA trained dozens of Palestinian security officers only to watch in dismay as many of them joined the ranks of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades during the intifada.
"I'm not thrilled at the idea of the Americans training Fatah militias or the Palestinian police," said Yuval Steinitz, a former chairman of the Israeli parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "Until now, both Fatah and the Palestinian police have been a great disappointment to those who believed they could overcome terror as they promised they would. The opposite has happened. In the best case, they were simply passive. In the worst cases, they actually encouraged terrorism."
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