Fri, Jul 04, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Mistrust obvious as the Palestinian police begin work


Israel's troop withdrawal has left a withered Palestinian police force to take control of the explosive Gaza Strip. As police began patrolling this week after Israel pulled out of parts of the territory Sunday, it emerged that as few as one out of every four officers holds a weapon.

Starting from zero, rigging up tents where their destroyed bases once stood, officers and their commanders must now police the danger zone between the Israelis and Palestinian militants.

"We are getting our engines started," said Major General Saeb Aijes, the northern Gaza commander for the Palestinian National Security, the closest thing the Palestinians have to an army.

Israeli forces pulled back from Gaza and broke down their checkpoints in an agreement handing security responsibility over to the Palestinians. Also, Islamic Palestinian factions called a three-month halt to bombing and shooting attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis. The mainstream Fatah called a six-month truce.

Palestinian security forces, in hiding for months because they had also become targets for the Israelis, quickly retook positions, but had to pitch tents on the sandy, wrecked lots where their police stations were rocketed to ruins in repeated Israeli air strikes during nearly three years of conflict.

The Palestinians' 17,000 police and security forces in Gaza have been more or less in hiding since Israel began bombing their headquarters and bases close to the start of fighting in September 2000. Israel targeted police, arguing they had joined in fighting or refused to act against extremists.

Now they feel they're caught in the middle, between Israel's war machines and Palestinian militants. Palestinian security commanders say their forces would be outgunned in a showdown with militants, who have stockpiles of anti-tank rockets, powerful homemade explosives, assault rifles and grenades.

Aijes said there's just one Kalashnikov rifle or pistol for every four of his security officers. There aren't enough cars or walkie-talkies, and personnel lack up-to-date training. No one's even talking of rebuilding destroyed bases yet, fearing Israel might just flatten them again.

"And now they are asking us to disarm Hamas and destroy them?" Aijes said. "The Israelis want to push us to a civil war."

Rather than force, Aijes believes peace might be the best way to suffocate militants, giving them little reason to go on fighting.

One test of how well Palestinian forces are able to secure the areas Israeli troops have left is the no nrthern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. Hamas militants took cover in its vast orange groves and fired crude, unguided rockets over the fence into an Israeli town, causing some damage but no serious injuries.

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