- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

TEL AVIV — A U.S.-led plan to bulk up the security forces protecting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is stirring concerns that it could feed the escalating violence between Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party and Islamic militants from Hamas.

The Bush administration’s security coordinator with the Palestinians, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, wants to deploy the Palestinian presidential guard — considered the most disciplined of the many security services in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — at critical crossing points with Israel.

The deployment, aimed at persuading Israel to ease restrictions on the movement of Palestinian civilians and commerce in and out of Gaza, is expected to require an enlargement of the force and a reported $26 million in international aid.

But some see the plan as a veiled intervention in the power struggle between the rival Palestinian political factions, which fought pitched battles that left 15 men dead earlier this month. The groups exchanged fire in Gaza yesterday, wounding at least one person.

“The question is not just to give arms and training for one faction, because they’re not going to enhance law and order, they’re going to kill and be killed,” said Eyad Sarraj, a Gaza political analyst.

“I would like to see a package that would strengthen all of the PA security forces, especially the police. It’s not an issue of the presidential guard or the police. The question is political, and it is the aim of the Americans to make Hamas fail.”

The New York Times reported this month that the United States was pushing a plan to nearly double the size of the presidential guard so it can help secure border passages around Gaza.

Since the outbreak of the latest Palestinian uprising six years ago, the passages have been closed for weeks at a time because of Israeli security concerns. The Dayton plan envisions the presidential guard helping to ease the situation.

The presidential guard is considered the best trained of the Palestinian security forces and has gotten high marks for helping to secure the crossing point between the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in the past year.

A Western diplomat said the money is being raised by the United States among its allies and will be used for training and infrastructure. But analysts said the aid is liable to be seen as an effort to prop up Mr. Abbas.

“The problem has never been one of technical facilities,” said Mark Heller, a fellow at Tel Aviv University. “It has been one of political control and political will. I don’t think you can weaken Hamas by buying more guns or equipment for the presidential guard.”

Mr. Heller added that putting the presidential guard in charge of border crossings would, in effect, be asking it “to usurp the normal functioning of government, and I’m not sure that Hamas will agree to it that easily.”

Although the American financing for the presidential guard is supposed to be negligible, Reuters news agency reported that the United States is funneling $42 million toward political groups — including Fatah — on the hunch that the Palestinians may hold elections soon.

U.S. Consul General Jake Walles told Reuters that the aid was nothing new and that the United States has always backed democracy groups.

But Omar Shaban, a Gaza political analyst, said the aid will backfire if perceived as partisan.

“They have to do it in a way that they don’t show it as empowering Fatah against Hamas. They can’t show it as a part of the conflict,” he said. “They have to say that we want to help the Palestinian people, they have to put in the context of the Palestinian state, not the president.”

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