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May 11, 2003

You'd better believe it

We won't take on Hamas, say Palestinian security forces

The Independant reports

"Under the hot sun in the West Bank's forgotten city, hundreds of armed Palestinian men are in training. Not the militants who have carried out scores of suicide bombings, but the Palestinian security forces who are being asked to crack down on militants under the new "roadmap" peace plan.

A source inside the Palestinian security forces said they were training for "the next phase": redeployment to reoccupied Palestinian cities across the West Bank if the Israeli army withdraws.

The question everyone is asking is whether these men are prepared to take on the militants of Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The answer, at least from the men training under the palm trees of Jericho, was no.

At the main training camp in the city, a scene oddly reminiscent of Beau Geste or some other ancient Foreign Legion movie was unfolding. New recruits were training in the a dusty courtyard enclosed on three sides by a low building, its paint peeling in the sun. Officers sheltered from the heat in a dirty room off the first floor gallery, drinking water kept cool in an earthenware pot – Jericho, after all, is said to be the oldest city in the world.

Sleepy Jericho, along with the troubled Gaza Strip, is one of the last two places where the myriad of different Palestinian security forces established under the Oslo peace process can operate freely. Across the rest of the West Bank, the Palestinian security forces have been ousted by the Israeli tanks that reoccupied every city except Jericho last year. Several Palestinian security officers and men were killed defending the cities from the Israeli invasion. Others are now in Israeli prisons, accused of having links with the militants. Police headquarters buildings were reduced to rubble by Israeli bulldozers.

But under the new, internationally backed roadmap peace plan which Colin Powell is in the Middle East this week to promote, the Palestinians are called on to rein in the militants and stop the suicide bombings. The Israelis are supposed to withdraw from the reoccupied cities. Here, and in Gaza, the Palestinian security forces are getting ready. But a sense of unease hangs over the training.

"We take our orders from the leadership, but if you ask me personally I am not ready to arrest anyone from Hamas," said Hamad, a member of the security forces. Ashraf, an 18-year-old beside him cradling a Kalashnikov, said: "I am not ready to arrest my own relative. He is in Hamas."

This is the problem which confronts the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, the man who is faced with carrying out the Palestinian side of the roadmap plan. He is expected to stop the suicide bombers, but the influence of the militants has permeated deep into Palestinian society during the two years of the intifada, and his own security forces have brothers and sons in the militant groups.

"We're military people," said a senior source within the security forces, who is involved in overseeing the training in Jericho. "We implement the orders we are given. But I hope the leadership will not order us to arrest Hamas activists. I hope there will be negotiation between the [militant] factions and the Palestinian Authority, so these problems can be resolved without arrests."

But one of his junior officers was blunter. Speaking in front of his superior, he said: "The Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people are aware of what is going on. Nobody from the Palestinian leadership or the factions will allow us to get into a civil war.

"This is a red line nobody can cross, not the PA, not the factions, not the people." Nor, it seems, the Palestinian soldiers and police training under the desert mountains of Jericho. "