Thursday, November 18, 2004

JERICHO, West Bank — A secret plan to incorporate fighters from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and other militants into the official Palestinian security system is starting to take shape here, as British security experts help to create a training infrastructure for Palestinian police forces.

“We were approached by the Palestinians for help and we identified a crucial way we can help — to make a discreet and small contribution,” said a senior British official who asked not to be identified given the confidentiality of the work.

Isolated on top of a sandy hill overlooking the city, the Judean Desert and the Jordan River, the Jericho Police Training Center is about to be remodeled.

Britain has allocated $480,000 for several of the sprawling and dilapidated single-story buildings to be spruced up and to have a second floor added, and to install equipment. A pipeline is to be laid to lead water from a presently flooded well so that trees can be planted and clean drinking and bathing water made available.

The academy will house around 500 trainees, according to security sources here. It will be completed by the end of March next year, the British official said.

“The Americans know about what we’re doing, they approve,” the source added. “But for as long as [the late Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat was around, they found it very difficult to get involved.”

Palestinian officials were coy about who precisely will be trained at the facility. But a source closely involved with the project told The Washington Times that they would include as many Al Aqsa militants as could be induced to participate.

Other hard-line Islamist militias — principally Hamas and Islamic Jihad — have not been approached to join the official forces, the sources said.

Gunmen who have become increasingly violent and apparently beyond the control of the official security forces will be given uniforms and disciplinary training, the source said.

The carrot is substantial — regular salaries plus incentive bonuses, providing the sort of income that many of the gunmen could not have enjoyed in their previous occupations.

“We’re not going to be vetting who the Palestinians choose to bring to the training center,” the senior British official said. “So it’s up to the Palestinians to select who they want trained, and we have no idea who they’ll choose.”

The location, Jericho, had been chosen because it is the only major city in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that has not erupted into major violence during the four-year uprising, the British official said.

Official Palestinian approaches to the militants are of special importance during the volatile transition period after Mr. Arafat’s death. They are intended to head off unrest within militant groups affiliated to Fatah, the revolutionary movement founded and headed by Mr. Arafat till his death last week. Fatah is the core organization of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

One clash on Sunday left two Palestinian security men dead and the likely next Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, scrambling for safety during a wake for Mr. Arafat in Gaza City.

“It was a shameful episode, and we must use every means to stamp out warlords,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told The Washington Times. Mr. Erekat is the top Palestinian official in Jericho.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, itself by no means a united force, and other militants within Fatah openly are expressing anger at corruption within the Palestinian Authority’s old guard and its apparent willingness to compromise with Israel — as well as its failure to satisfy the groups with sufficient ready cash.

Mr. Arafat often provided substantial sums of money to the gunmen while denying publicly that they were part of his Fatah or Palestinian Authority operations.

Since Mr Arafat fell sick, however, the money has dried up. “We’re not getting a single shekel,” complained Nasser Jumaa, who heads the brigade in Nablus, the largest West Bank city.

Hard-line Al Aqsa members have stepped up their rhetoric against the leadership of Mr. Abbas and his aides, with one 29-year-old representative of the brigades in Bethlehem telling reporters on Tuesday that his men “want to kill” Mr. Abbas, the newly chosen Palestine Liberation Organization chairman.

The 69-year-old Mr. Abbas will almost certainly be the candidate of the dominant Fatah in Jan. 9 presidential elections to replace Mr. Arafat.

“To make the plan fly we will need guarantees from Israel that they’ll allow Aqsa and other militiamen to be transported to Jericho safely,” said a security source in the city.

He believed Israel would have no option but to agree, under U.S. and European pressure.

Israel has insisted for years that the dozen or so disparate and at times rival official Palestinian forces be consolidated. It believes such a move would allow the Palestinian authorities to rein in suicide bombers and other potential attackers against Israel.

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