Palestinian Forces' Training Marred by Delays, Politics
Saturday, March 15, 2008
MUWAQQAR, Jordan -- A U.S.-funded program to train and equip Palestinian security forces is mired in delays, a shortage of resources, and differences between Israelis and the Americans over what military capabilities those forces should have once deployed in the territories.
Weeks into the course, which began in late January, U.S. and Jordanian instructors had yet to receive essential training equipment, including vehicles, two-way radios, dummy pistols, rifles and batons, and a U.S.-designed curriculum, Americans with close knowledge of the program said. Because of Israeli concerns, the group of more than 1,000 Palestinian trainees has not been outfitted with pledged body armor or light-armored personnel carriers. The shortages and delays have forced U.S. and Jordanian trainers to improvise their way through the program, including purchasing pistol-shaped cigarette lighters for use in arrest drills and using their own cars for driver training. One of the Americans said, "In short, we are faking it."
In unveiling his 2003 blueprint for Middle East peace, President Bush said building an effective Palestinian security force was essential to achieving a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
Touring the region last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the goal is to create "a professional and capable Palestinian security force" in part to counter Hamas, the armed Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip and does not recognize Israel.
The forces being trained here in a desert camp one hour from Jordan's capital, Amman, are under the Palestinian Authority, run by Hamas's relatively moderate rival, Fatah, which favors negotiations with Israel. Although Israel insists that the Palestinians must have effective security in the occupied West Bank and Gaza before its forces withdraw further, the Israeli government has placed significant restrictions on the U.S.-coordinated training effort.
"No one can deny that at the beginning there were some growing pains," said Dov Schwartz, a U.S. Defense Department official who is spokesman for the training program. "We had never done this before."
Testifying before a House panel earlier this week, Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch said the United States is making "substantial progress" in training Palestinian security forces. But information from two Americans with close knowledge of the program -- both of whom have extensive experience training security forces -- and an internal memo from a U.S. contractor indicate deficiencies in the training program. U.S. contract workers and Jordanian security forces are training about 600 members of the Fatah-dominated National Security Forces, or NSF, in a 16-week course. About 425 members of the elite presidential guard, which answers to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, are undergoing eight weeks of training.
During an escorted tour of the camp last week, black-clad members of the presidential guard banged clubs on riot shields on the asphalt training grounds and blasted paper targets in live-fire practice.
Squads mustered in mismatched sweat suits for physical training or sat in green uniforms in classrooms lit by overhead projectors, eagerly answering the questions of their Jordanian instructors.
The courses here are the first extended training of Palestinian recruits since June, when hundreds of Fatah graduates of a U.S.-backed, 45-day crash course conducted in Egypt were deployed against Hamas fighters in Gaza.
Hamas routed the Fatah forces in the strip in five days, leaving Hamas in charge of Gaza and Abbas, a Fatah leader, governing the West Bank.
But doubts in Israel and in the U.S. Congress about the loyalties of Abbas's forces have slowed the arrival of the program's funding. Last summer, Congress approved $28 million for an initial round of training as part of an $86 million appropriation for Palestinian security. No further money has yet been approved, though another $50 million has been proposed for the years ahead.