Funding for the Palestinians - A New Arms Race

28 January 2007

The Funding for Peace Coalition is increasingly concerned that external funding received by the Palestinians is no longer driven by the humiliations of poverty. Instead, the Western desire to suppress fanatical Islamic influences in the region is seeing aid being used as a tool in an increasingly single-minded arms race. The promotion of peace through better standards of living is fading into a long-forgotten dream.

In the past, both the EU and the USA have contributed to training Palestinian police and military units. Under the Oslo accords, Chairman Arafat's fledgling uniformed guards were supplied with significant numbers of light arms. It is now recognised that these efforts were largely unsuccessful in promoting a pluralistic rule of law.

America has now committed a further US$86 million to support the regime of President Abbas. However, research from the Wall Street Journal questions whether Abbas can be seen as a reliable ally or even as a permanent figure in the region. Some commentators have seen this as another Vietnam scenario.

Equally alarming are the claims of Palestinian human rights' activists that many of the Palestinian militias have abused their positions, turning Western supplied weapons and training against local civilians.

It is time for Western electors to demand that their taxes are utilised to secure the benefits of peace rather than an extended game of post cold war politics.

The report from the Wall Street Journal is posted below.

Dangerous Territory

With Aid, U.S. Widens Role in Palestinian Crisis to Undercut Hamas And Iran, Bush Pushes $86 Million Plan

By CAM SIMPSON in Jerusalem and NEIL KING JR. in Washington

January 12, 2007

JERUSALEM -- In a move fraught with risk and historical ironies, the Bush administration is preparing to pour $86 million into strengthening security forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The plan, which has sparked a behind-the-scenes debate in Congress, is intended to fortify Mr. Abbas against armed assaults from Hamas, a militant, Iran-backed Islamist group committed to the destruction of Israel. It is just one example of how a new Bush administration focus on countering Iranian influence in the Middle East is quickly reshaping and regionalizing conflicts.

Critics say that Mr. Abbas's Fatah party is hardly a reliable ally. Under Mr. Abbas's predecessor, Yasser Arafat, Fatah was widely reviled for corruption. And its members in the past have launched terrorist attacks against Israelis and Americans. Some analysts worry the new effort could backfire on the U.S., inflaming Palestinian strife and supplying guns that could be turned against Israel some day.

"I think we are playing with fire," says Robert Malley, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank focused on conflict resolution. He sees a "classic arms-race dynamic" taking shape.


Read a transcript of the June 2005 committee hearing where Gen. Ward discussed problems with Palestinian security forces.

The security program, which would provide more than the combined total of all money the U.S. has given to the Palestinian Authority since its formation in 1994, was detailed recently in classified briefings for Congress by a U.S. general who now serves as an adviser to Mr. Abbas, the primary U.S. ally in the Palestinian territories.

The initiative precedes a weeklong swing through the Middle East by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which kicks off in Jerusalem tomorrow. In exchange for support countering Iran across the region, Ms. Rice and the White House are promising Arab regimes political progress for the Palestinians in their attempts to establish a state next to Israel. Because Israel and the U.S. won't deal with Hamas, progress on that front means trying to bolster Mr. Abbas's position against the group. Israeli officials back the plan.

Mr. Abbas was voted president before Hamas won parliamentary elections last year. In essence, the Bush administration, which pushed for the Palestinian elections under its emphasis on promoting democracy across the Middle East, now wants to strengthen the armed forces of those who lost at the ballot box.

At a minimum, U.S. officials want to keep Mr. Abbas's forces strong enough to maintain a military stalemate with Hamas. Mr. Abbas is widely viewed by U.S. and other Western leaders as an earnest partner, although he has yet to achieve significant reforms within Fatah. U.S. officials say they don't intend for the money to go directly for weapons, although it is unclear how that aim would be enforced. Israeli officials have said in interviews and public statements that the U.S. approved two major arms shipments to Mr. Abbas's forces in the past seven months from U.S. allies in the region as part of the new approach.

Mr. Abbas's forces were originally formed to serve his predecessor, Mr. Arafat. They have a history of alleged human-rights violations and have long been accused of fostering a culture of corruption when Fatah dominated the Palestinian Authority. Those sorts of problems led many regular Palestinians, even some who don't accept an Islamist vision of governance, to support Hamas in the elections it won last year.

Dennis Ross, a former top Middle East adviser to both Democratic and Republican administrations, says the Bush strategy is based on flawed assumptions. "The $86 million reflects the basic sense in the [Bush] administration that the only way to change things is through confrontation," he says.

Last week the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, asked the Democratic chairman, Rep. Tom Lantos, to put an "informational hold" on the cash, according to senior Democratic and Republican House aides. Mr. Lantos has not placed a hold on the money, but his staff says he is seeking more details from the administration. The White House gave Congress a legally required notice Dec. 28 that it planned to move ahead with the program, but the president still hasn't taken the next and final step, sending a waiver to Capitol Hill. His signature on such a waiver is mandated by a law that bans most aid to the Palestinian Authority.

One key reason Bush administration officials are anxious to move fast: They say they see Hamas as better-equipped, better-armed and better-trained, and argue that's due to help from Iran. Because of this, they contend the new support is aimed at halting confrontation, not fueling it, by evening the balance. Nimer Hamad, a senior political adviser to Mr. Abbas, says a Palestinian civil war is not the goal. Ultimately, he says, Mr. Abbas needs to be strong enough to press for a political solution. A balance of power "will oblige [Hamas] to the field of negotiations and dialogue."

Last Chance

Israeli security officials, who strongly back the American program and have quietly assisted Washington, relay their own sense of desperation. Many of them believe this is the last chance to keep Islamists from consolidating a long-term hold on power next door. "If I have to choose between confrontation [among Palestinians] or the dominance of Hamas, I choose confrontation," said a senior Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Another senior Israeli security official also said time is short for Mr. Abbas to regain momentum.

No matter whom they support politically -- Hamas, Fatah or any of the smaller Palestinian political groups and armed militias -- Palestinians have a deep distrust in American involvement with Palestinian Authority security forces. A European-funded poll conducted in May found only 16% of the 1,800 Palestinians surveyed in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip trusted U.S. and Canadian assistance and counsel in security matters.

From the inception of the Palestinian Authority under the 1993 Oslo agreement, the U.S. and Israel pressed Mr. Arafat for security services willing and able to disarm militants such as Hamas who reject peace with Israel. Almost from the start, this placed Palestinian security men in a precarious position within their own society.

Rather than crack down on Palestinian militants at the behest of Israel, some members of the groups looked the other way or even participated in attacks against the Jewish state.

Palestinian and international groups complained of deeply rooted, Mafia-style corruption within these forces during Mr. Arafat's reign, in addition to alleged human-rights abuses. Some of these abuses are confirmed by former members of the security services. During Mike Canawati's service in Mr. Arafat's presidential guard in the 1990s, Mr. Canawati says he was deployed to collect personal debts, extort businessmen and arrest fellow Palestinians who wouldn't cooperate. He says shame forced him into early retirement. "It's not the job of presidential security to do the job of the Mafia," says Mr. Canawati, a member of a prominent Bethlehem family who quit the presidential guard in 1999, blaming Mr. Arafat's lieutenants.

Mr. Hamad, the Palestinian presidential adviser, says: "I don't want to defend the past. There were so many problems." But he adds Mr. Abbas should be credited for his courage in publicly acknowledging the widespread nature of graft and other problems within the ranks of his own Fatah movement. "Since he was elected as president of the Palestinian mission and authority, at least there is no new corruption," Mr. Hamad says.

Like many Palestinians, Mr. Hamad also blames the Israeli Defense Forces for targeted attacks against the Palestinian security infrastructure during the so-called second intifada, the bloody Palestinian-Israeli conflict that began in 2000. With Israeli encouragement, the U.S. gave up on the security forces under Mr. Arafat, accusing them of involvement in terrorism during that period.

After Mr. Arafat's death, and Mr. Abbas's election to succeed him, the U.S. began working with Palestinian forces again. Ms. Rice announced the move in February 2005 on her first mission as America's top diplomat, appointing Lt. Gen. William Ward as the U.S. security adviser. She emphasized Gen. Ward would be "responsible for helping the Palestinians in reform of their security forces" and for coordinating security with Israel. She also declared it "the most promising moment for progress between Palestinians and Israelis" in recent memory.

After just a few months on the job, Gen. Ward pointed to problems beyond corruption. The forces were dysfunctional and ill-prepared, he told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 30, 2005. He added that as many as 38,000 men on the payrolls never showed up for work. The security services were long used as a patronage base for Fatah, giving the Palestinian territories last year the world's highest ratio of security-service personnel to civilians, according to the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, a think tank.

Insecure Citizens

Yet Palestinians themselves remained among the world's most insecure citizens. One reform considered crucial by Gen. Ward, enacted in the first year of renewed U.S. efforts on the security front, was the consolidation of the security forces under the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Interior. Before that the roughly 60,000 security personnel were scattered among more than a dozen different services, often with overlapping responsibilities, few clear command lines and sometimes-fierce rivalries.

That state of affairs, critics say, was fostered by Mr. Arafat and other Fatah bosses in order to maintain rule. Gen. Ward and other international advisers reported finding services organized more along clan loyalties rather than transparent institutions.

But the Ministry of Interior, where at least a semblance of command was being organized, has been in the control of Hamas since the Islamist group took over the government last March. Now the American advisers who saw the move as a crucial first step toward reform can't even speak with beat cops, let alone commanders, under the ministry. American officials are forbidden from dealing with anyone inside an entity controlled by Hamas, because it's designated as a terrorist group under U.S. law.

As tensions with Hamas have escalated, Mr. Abbas has responded by issuing presidential orders pulling Ministry of Interior forces under the command of the president's office. Gen. Ward left before Hamas won the election, and has since been replaced by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the official who recently briefed Congress.

Bassam Eid, head of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group in East Jerusalem, believes little has changed within the security services since the time of Mr. Arafat's reign. Mr. Eid's organization has tracked about 550 Palestinian murders in the territories since 2000. Of these, an estimated 120 were killings of suspected "collaborators" with Israel. But the other roughly 430 remain unsolved. He said his group has amassed detailed evidence that the vast majority of open cases are linked to Fatah.

"Don't tell me Fatah can be considered a moderate movement," Mr. Eid said, adding, "What Mr. Bush will do with this money is double the number of thugs." Palestinian murders aren't the only ones that remain unsolved. Ms. Rice herself, in announcing Gen. Ward's appointment, said she had been assured by Mr. Abbas that he would "bring to justice those who murdered" three American security contractors in a 2003 terrorist attack in Gaza. That case, too, remains open.

A senior American official involved in the effort said the U.S. would screen everyone receiving assistance under the new program to weed out suspected terrorists and human-rights abusers.

Meanwhile, much of Mr. Abbas's security force remains deeply opposed to Israel. Indeed, Israeli security services say members have carried out terrorist attacks against Israelis in recent years. Some worry the guns being funneled to Fatah now will ultimately be aimed at Israelis or even Americans, regardless of background checks. Many commanders and foot soldiers maintain dual loyalties, overlapping their official employment with membership in militias and terrorist groups loyal to Fatah, most notably the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. Both the U.S. and European Union designate it as a terrorist organization.

Mahmoud Damra, the senior commander in the West Bank for one of Mr. Abbas's most elite forces, was arrested by the Israelis in September. Mr. Damra, more commonly known by his nom de guerre, Abu Awad, is accused of planning and ordering a spate of attacks, including one at a Jerusalem social security office in which an American citizen was killed. Mr. Damra was arrested by Israeli border police as he rolled into Israel at a border crossing just north of Ramallah.

Write to Cam Simpson at and Neil King Jr. at

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