For Abbas, a Crisis of Perception

Recruits for the Palestinian security forces train in the West Bank. Israelis argue that many in the security forces are nothing more than terrorists.
Recruits for the Palestinian security forces train in the West Bank. Israelis argue that many in the security forces are nothing more than terrorists. (By Majdi Mohammed -- Associated Press)
By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

NABLUS, West Bank -- The entryway of the Nablus police headquarters is plastered with posters memorializing dead comrades. Some were killed by Israeli tank fire. Others were picked off by Israeli army sharpshooters. In addition to being police officers, most were members of Palestinian militant organizations.

In the drab hallways of the Nablus station house, the policemen on the posters are considered heroes, resistance fighters who died defending their homeland against an occupation army.

In Israel, they are considered terrorists.

For Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, no issue is more pivotal to his support from the outside world -- or more treacherous to his stature with his own people -- than Israeli and U.S. demands that he reform Palestinian security forces and disarm and disband militant groups. His key plan for accomplishing those tasks is to integrate the fighters into official Palestinian security agencies, with the ultimate aim, Abbas says, of creating "one law, one authority, one weapon."

The Israeli government, which wants Palestinian forces to crack down on suicide bombers and prevent militant attacks, opposes any integration proposal that would keep weapons in the hands of men it considers terrorists. Palestinians, who want their police to protect them from crime as well as Israeli invasions, generally favor the idea.

The dispute is one of many that have stalled progress in Abbas's reform plans, contributing to the perceptions of Palestinians and Israelis alike that, almost four months into the job, Abbas has not done enough to overhaul the Palestinian security forces and has no strategy to accomplish more.

The issue is particularly pressing because of Israeli plans to withdraw troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip this summer. Many are concerned that Palestinian security forces will not be strong enough to restrain armed groups during the pullout or be able to control Gaza afterward.

"He seems to be the type who believes that with enough goodwill, everything will work out, and that's turning out not to be the case," said Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, an organization based in Brussels that involves itself in conflicts worldwide.

Militants have stormed meetings across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, demanding more rights and a greater voice in Abbas's government. The old guard of political leaders and security officials who grew up under Abbas's predecessor, Yasser Arafat, are clinging stubbornly to power, undercutting Abbas's reform efforts. And Israeli officials accuse Abbas of doing nothing to disarm militants, and have frozen promises to turn over more West Bank cities to Palestinian control and to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal.

Abbas, known popularly as Abu Mazen, has rejected Israeli demands to go after the armed groups militarily, saying it is better to co-opt them.

"The big achievement of Abu Mazen is that he's been able to shift the whole thinking in the Palestinian arena from military options to the option of negotiations by peaceful means," said the Palestinian Authority's deputy foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. "He's been able to influence Palestinian militant groups to follow" a more conciliatory style of Islam "rather than the bin Laden style," he said, referring to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Abbas's reform mission is daunting: reorganize an octopus-like police and military apparatus created for political expediency rather than security; revamp an institution of 58,000 people that has been a critical employment agency for a financially feeble government with few social safety nets; and find a balance between the demands of armed groups for a role in the new Palestinian government and Israeli ultimatums that they be stripped of their weapons.

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