Though Israel is scheduled to depart the Gaza Strip in six weeks, the badly fractured Palestinian security forces are still struggling to consolidate into a body capable of maintaining control, a top U.S. general told Congress yesterday.
Lt. Gen. William E. Ward, who four months ago was assigned to assist the Palestinians with their security services, described a difficult and at times frustrating experience of trying to reorganize a "dysfunctional" system of individual fiefdoms and an almost nonexistent chain of command. The Palestinian police also have little infrastructure or communications equipment, much of it having been destroyed by the Israelis in the past four years.
Training forces and building loyalty to legitimate institutions "will occur over time, that transformation will take time, and it does not currently exist," Ward told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in his most extensive public comments since his appointment.
Ward did say, however, that Egypt and Israel are close to an agreement that will give Egypt responsibility for security in an area known as the Philadelphi corridor, which forms the Gaza-Egyptian border. The two countries have haggled for a year over the terms of the agreement, with Egypt seeking to put its forces also along the Israeli border and the Israelis seeking to make the deal reversible.
Ward said issues will be worked out between the two sides "within a matter of days." An Israeli official confirmed that substantive issues have been resolved. Among the compromises, Egypt will deploy forces only along the border of Gaza, and the deal will be reversible only if both sides agree.
Ward testified that about 20,000 of the 58,000 Palestinians with security jobs show up for work. Over time, he said, the security services had turned into a "social welfare net," with payments being made to people even if they did not contribute to the day-to-day security on the streets.
Ward commended Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas for attempting to deal with the situation by mandating retirement for people older than 60. "The notion of retiring someone, moving them aside and letting the younger generation come forward, just wasn't something that was in that mentality," he said.
Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch, who has traveled repeatedly to the region to assist Israeli-Palestinian coordination on the Gaza withdrawal, echoed Ward's assessment. "Overall, Palestinian performance on confronting violence has been far from satisfactory, and this is a real shortfall and area of concern," Welch said.
Ward said he had completed an inventory of the equipment needed by the Palestinians, including vehicles, clothing and basic infrastructure. Some of it will be supplied by the Europeans, and he said he was working to expedite it through Israeli customs.
Israeli officials have drawn the line at providing lethal weapons to the Palestinian security. They have pointedly told their Palestinian counterparts that if they need weapons, they should simply collect the illegal ones on the streets.
Ward demurred when asked whether Abbas's strategy of trying to co-opt militant groups -- rather than confront them -- would work in the long run. He said that he did not "know if I'd do business that way" but that it "has created an atmosphere that is allowing other things that are important to occur."