WORRY IN THE WEST BANK:
Officials fear Gaza-like takeover in land Fatah controls
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Ramallah, West Bank -- Few Palestinian Authority officials are
expecting anything concrete to emerge from this week's Middle East
peace talks in Annapolis, Md. Instead, the talk is of war.
But the primary enemy for many Palestinians is no longer Israel - it
is Hamas. Since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip by force in June,
supporters of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah
movement have been arrested, humiliated and tortured there by Hamas
security forces. Several have been killed, according to the
Palestinian Center for Human Rights and other agencies.
Many Palestinians fear that Hamas could stage a similar coup in the
West Bank, where Fatah retains control. The rival factions always have
disagreed over policy toward Israel, with Hamas refusing to recognize
the Jewish state's right to exist while Fatah favors peace talks. As
Fatah seeks to negotiate an end to decades of fighting, its supporters
fear that Hamas and its allies risk a civil war that will condemn the
Palestinian people to permanent conflict.
To combat the threat, the Palestinian Authority has created an elite
new counterterror unit. Officers from the unit are currently attending
a monthlong training course in Moscow hosted by counterterror experts
from Russian intelligence.
The new Al Himaya Wal Isnad (Protection and Reinforcement) unit is
commanded by Anwar Al Hilu, a senior commander in the Palestinian
General Intelligence service headed by Tawfiq Tirawi.
A group of 25 General Intelligence officers left for Moscow via Jordan
in the last week of October after several days of physical training
and medical tests at a facility in Jericho. In an interview, one of
the Palestinian officers said the 30-day course includes weapons
training with live fire and computer simulators, exercises in VIP
protection, rescuing hostages from terrorists and simulating the
arrest of armed suspects in buildings and in vehicles.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officer said the course was
held at a snow-covered training facility next to Domodedovo Airport on
the southern outskirts of Moscow. He said the instructors were
attached to the elite Russian anti-terrorist Alpha commando unit which
has fought extremist Muslim Chechen rebels. An official from the
Palestinian Embassy in Moscow acted as translator.
"We were shown the video of the Moscow theater siege in October 2002
where Alpha pumped in gas to put everyone to sleep," said the officer.
"They admitted that it had been a mistake because so many of the
hostages died after swallowing their own tongues while unconscious."
Another officer in the new unit said on condition of anonymity that
similar courses are being held in France, Germany and Algeria, and
there are plans to send some 200 Palestinian security personnel abroad
for training each month.
"We are learning how to confront Hamas, they are the greatest threat
to the Palestinian Authority," this officer said.
"They are getting good training over there," said Dr. Ibrahim
Khraishi, an assistant minister at the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign
Affairs. "They will return with the knowledge they need, waiting to
start work. ... We have well-trained cadres. They are trained not just
in Russia but in different countries, Arab countries and European
The courses are being held outside the West Bank to distinguish them
from the unarmed civilian police training provided in Jericho by
European Union and American experts.
Colin Smith, a former British police official who now heads EUCOPPS,
the European Union support program for the Palestinian police in
Ramallah, said he is aware of the groups being sent to Moscow and
elsewhere, but his work is confined to the Palestinian civil police
"We don't touch that at all, we don't deal with firearms or weapons.
This is arranged by the Palestinians themselves through bilateral
contacts with Russia and others," Smith said.
Tensions between Fatah and Hamas have been simmering since the Islamic
movement took control of the Gaza Strip in June. Those tensions boiled
over two weeks ago when eight Fatah supporters were gunned down at a
rally in Gaza.
A cell phone video clip currently being passed among Palestinians
denounces "Hamas crimes" in Gaza. Warning viewers of explicit images,
it compares Hamas' execution of Fatah leaders to the treatment of
Palestinian suspects by the Israelis. "Forgive us, oh martyr, have we
descended to these depths?" the clip pleads of Samih El-Madhoun, a
Fatah leader lynched in Gaza in July by Hamas gunmen.
Two weeks ago, Abbas made his first explicit call for the overthrow of
Hamas, describing the group as "a criminal gang killing people in cold
"We have to bring down this bunch that took over Gaza with armed
force, and is abusing the sufferings and pains of our people," Abbas
said in a speech to mark Palestinian independence day.
Palestinian officials have not explained how Fatah might regain Gaza.
The accepted wisdom is that Abbas cannot be seen to retake Gaza by
relying on Israeli military support. But many Fatah supporters say
they cannot overcome Hamas without Israeli intervention and are coming
to see it as a lesser evil.
One of the Al Himaya Wal Isnad officers said there is endless
speculation among his colleagues that they might be sent to secure
control of the territory.
"We talk about an Israeli invasion of Gaza all the time," said the
officer. "Of course we are training for the day after Israel cuts
Hamas in half and then we can go in and clean up. We know this will
happen, but we haven't been told anything officially.
"We want to go in there and restore the authority of Abu Mazen," he
said, using Abbas' nom de guerre. "We're just waiting for the signal."
This article appeared on page A - 15 of the San Francisco Chronicle