Abbas brings in retired security commander

Sunday, October 22, 2006

JERUSALEM -- The Palestinian president on Saturday brought a security commander out of retirement to block Hamas from building up its forces in the West Bank, the latest sign that the standoff between the Islamic militant group and Fatah could erupt into widespread violence.

The commander, Ismail Jaber, has been tainted by corruption but is respected by thousands of gunmen loyal to Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement and holds sway over key West Bank commanders.

Abbas has been locked in a power struggle with Hamas since the Islamic group trounced Fatah in parliamentary elections early this year, with control over Palestinian security forces a key aspect of the dispute.

Most of the forces are loyal to Abbas, but Hamas formed its own militia of 6,000 men and deployed it throughout the Gaza Strip, a move that has sometimes led to violent clashes.

Jaber's appointment came a day after Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas leader, said the Islamic group would beef up its militia in Fatah's West Bank stronghold. A Hamas official said they planned to recruit about 1,500 members there.

Under Abbas' new plan, Jaber will take command of all West Bank security forces, except for three branches that fall under control of the Hamas-run Interior Ministry.

Abbas hopes Jaber will help him curb Hamas' plans in the West Bank, an official close to the Palestinian leader said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

Adding to Fatah's concerns, Hamas officials said Iran has promised to help train their security forces.

Jaber's appointment marks a turnaround for Abbas. In April 2005, Abbas forced Jaber and other senior officials into retirement as part of his efforts to root out corruption. Jaber was suspected of putting thousands of fictitious names on his payrolls and pocketing the money.

However, Jaber has years of experience and is seen as one of the few people who can unify the pro-Fatah forces in the West Bank, which have been riven by infighting and rivalries.

Jaber, who is in his 60s, was a top commander for the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon during the 1980s, and later followed the late Yasser Arafat to the West Bank after the interim peace deals with Israel in the early 1990s. He served as Arafat's national security adviser and police chief in the West Bank.

Jaber also has influence over parts of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent but decentralized group of gunmen loosely linked to Fatah.

On Friday, Al Aqsa leaders from four large refugee camps in the West Bank met in the city of Nablus to discuss the threat posed by Hamas.

"We decided there will be no Hamas force in the West Bank. We won't let them do what they did in Gaza," said one of the commanders, Nasser Abu Aziz. "Every Hamas policeman will be in our sights."

Both Hamas and Jaber face difficult tasks. Hamas' power base in the West Bank is much smaller than in Gaza. The Fatah-dominated security forces, meanwhile, are largely in disarray, and it is unclear whether Jaber will have the funds or organizational abilities to impose order.

Jaber did not return a message seeking comment. In Gaza, Hamas officials declined comment on the appointment.

But the appointment was likely to add to growing tensions. Some 17 people have died in Palestinian infighting in recent weeks, and on Friday, Fatah-aligned gunmen opened fire on Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's convoy, causing no injuries.

The violence stems from a political standoff between Abbas and Hamas over international calls for the Islamic group to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Abbas, a moderate who was elected separately last year, has urged Hamas to accept the demands in order to get international sanctions lifted. Hamas refuses to give in, despite widespread hardship caused by the sanctions.

In new violence Saturday, members of the Palestinian security forces fired in the air in Gaza City's main shopping district and burned tires near Abbas' home to press demands for the payment of salaries on the eve of a major Muslim holiday. The three-day Eid el-Fitr holiday begins early next week, and children are traditionally given new clothes and toys.

Because of the sanctions, the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority has been largely unable to pay the salaries of 165,000 civil servants, including 80,000 members of the security forces, since it came to power in March.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Hamas should be given more time to meet international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

"Demanding now that Hamas fully accept the Quartet's conditions, such as the recognition of Israel, the denunciation of violence against Israel, and the acceptance of all existing agreements is unrealistic at the present stage," Lavrov told the Kuwaiti news agency KUNA on Friday.

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