- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2004

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian officials disbanded a Gaza security force feared by civilians and under fire by human rights groups in one of the first concrete steps toward security reform in months, a security official said yesterday.

The dominant Fatah movement, also carrying out reforms after the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said it was trying to unify militant groups operating under its banner in a single command to stanch factional infighting and centralize decision-making.

“We are facing a new phase, and we must say farewell to chaos and to all those who cause it in the Palestinian streets,” Palestinian Preventive Security chief Brig. Gen. Rashid Abu Shbak told reporters in Gaza City. “We must clear the air of past mistakes of the previous era.”

The 70-person unit was formed more than a year ago to crack down on militant groups and track and arrest high-profile criminals in Gaza Strip. But some members of the unit were accused of turning into criminals themselves, confiscating land, smuggling weapons and intimidating the public with threats of violence.

The United States has long demanded a major overhaul of the Palestinian security services, including the disbanding many of the rival — and in some cases warring — forces, but faced stiff resistance from Mr. Arafat, who used the forces to maintain his hold on power.

The Washington Times reported Nov. 19 that British security experts are helping create a training infrastructure for Palestinian police forces, and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and other militant groups are likely to be incorporated into the official Palestinian security system.

Britain has allocated $480,000 toward the Jericho Police Training Center for about 500 trainees.

Gen. Shbak also announced the creation of a committee within Fatah to work to merge its fragmented and decentralized armed militias, including Al Aqsa, a militant group responsible for many suicide bombing attacks on Israelis.

“These groups must be brought under control, and there must be a central leadership that can be held responsible for their actions,” he said.

The committee will pursue ways to bring these armed groups under control without interfering with their “principles of resistance,” he said, indicating that Fatah had no intention of pushing them to end the four-year-old armed uprising against Israel.

Meanwhile, in the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, about 1,000 Palestinians, including scores of armed, masked militants affiliated with Fatah, demonstrated for the continuation of the uprising.

The demonstrators also declared their support for Mahmoud Abbas, the new head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Fatah’s candidate for the Jan. 9 presidential elections.

Mr. Abbas, 69, is a pragmatist who has spoken out against the uprising and is thought to be the candidate favored by Israel and the United States.

The rally came a day after jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti dropped any plans to run in the elections and endorsed Mr. Abbas.

Barghouti, 45, is the leader of the Fatah movement’s young guard, which has been agitating for reform and a chance to capture leadership positions currently monopolized by older politicians.

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