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For Abbas, a Crisis of Perception

The difference between the Israeli and Palestinian views of the security issue was starkly illustrated on a recent night when Israeli troops drove into Nablus, stopped in front of the police station and began "shooting randomly," according to Col. Bassam Darweesh, a deputy commander of the Nablus police force. "We got reports of five robbery cases and we were not capable of doing anything because we were trapped."

Israeli military officials said the soldiers were hunting wanted militants.


Recruits for the Palestinian security forces train in the West Bank. Israelis argue that many in the security forces are nothing more than terrorists. (Majdi Mohammed -- AP)

During the 4 1/2 -year Palestinian uprising, or intifada, the Israeli army has demolished the headquarters of the Palestinian security organization, destroyed its vehicles and prohibited Palestinian police from carrying weapons. That was enforced throughout the West Bank with orders to shoot to kill anyone seen on the street openly carrying arms -- the assumption being that anyone with a weapon was a terrorist. And in some cases, Palestinian security officers were militants who participated in attacks on Israeli civilians, settlers and soldiers. In one case, a Bethlehem policeman blew himself up on a city bus in Jerusalem in January 2004, killing 11 people.

For the Israeli public, the weapons ban effectively equated Palestinian police with terrorists; for Palestinians, it undermined the authority of the police, because every time a police officer spotted an Israeli patrol, whether or not he was a militant, he ran to hide.

"The security services proved a failure in confronting the situation," said Abu Hamad Masaem, a political activist in the Balata refugee camp on the edge of Nablus. "If they can't protect us from occupation, how the heck can you come and tell us what to do? So they lost their power."

Militants themselves are not fully behind Abbas's integration plan.

"The backbone of al-Aqsa see themselves as involved in a political struggle," said Rabbani, of the International Crisis Group. "They took up arms against the occupation, and the idea of disarming before the underlying causes are addressed -- telling them, 'Lay down your weapons and we'll give you a salary' -- is insulting."

Almost three months ago, Israeli officials said they would return security control to Palestinian forces in five West Bank towns, but after making the transfer in Jericho and Tulkarm, they have delayed handing over authority in the final three. The Israelis said the Palestinian side had not lived up to its part of the agreement by collecting weapons from wanted militants in Jericho and Tulkarm, but Abbas disputed that assertion, saying last week that weapons had been collected from all wanted militants in the two cities.

After repeated pledges to consolidate the 12 unwieldy Palestinian security forces into three main branches -- an effort Abbas began two years ago when he served briefly as the appointed prime minister under Arafat -- Abbas recently named three new chiefs to preside over a reorganized security apparatus with three divisions.

In an effort to remove a top layer of long-entrenched officers, Palestinian lawmakers approved a mandatory retirement age of 60 for security officials. Foreign ministry official Abdullah said that 1,076 officers are currently being retired and that an additional 1,000 will be ordered to retire in a second phase.

Abbas also has asked lawmakers to impose a law that would allow commanders to serve in the same position for no more than four years, but the proposal has yet to be voted on by the legislature and is opposed by senior security officials.

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator with Israel, said complaints that Abbas was not moving quickly or forcefully enough were "nonsense."

"We've done so many things . . . as far as aborting suicide attacks and other attacks, and they know it," he said. "The quiet and cessation of violence is Abu Mazen's doing, stopping the rockets in Gaza, reconfiguring the security operations in Gaza, preparing for legislative elections. I'm not saying we've done everything or that we've finished, but it's a start."

But Israeli officials say the administrative and bureaucratic reforms, while a step forward, are not enough.

"They don't fight the terror infrastructure, the terrorists themselves," said an Israeli defense official who declined to be quoted by name. "They are trying to solve it in a peaceful way, and the result is that they do nothing active against terrorists."

Anderson reported from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Sufian Taha contributed to this report.


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