THE PALESTINIAN ARMY

The most dangerous violation of Oslo yet --

It all sounded so reasonable. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) would be allowed a small, lightly-armed police force, to maintain law and order in the areas under its control.

In 1993, Israel's Police Minister Moshe Shahal said the PA police force would number "a few thousand" and be armed with light weapons (The Jerusalem Post, April 29, 1993). "Palestinians with a criminal record will not be recruited to the force," he later added.

Shahal and other Israelis congratulated themselves, believing they were keeping control of matters; that they would never allow a future Palestinian entity to enjoy such trappings of sovereignty as a military.

They were wrong. Arafat has an army armed, dangerous, and growing.

It comprises up to 80,000 men, and at least a dozen separate security organisations, including such obviously non-civilian structures as Military Intelligence and Naval Police.

Early signs of trouble

Palestinian policemen began to arrive in the autonomous zones of Jericho and Gaza in early 1994, some from PLO camps abroad, others recruited internally. For the most part, they underwent training offered by German, Jordanian and Egyptian instructors. The European Union was to be the major financier of the operation.

In May of that year, a senior IDF officer said the fledgling police force had thus far demonstrated eagerness to succeed, a high level of discipline, and a desire to cooperate with the IDF. All appeared to be going smoothly.

But the problems soon began. A confidential report compiled by the Judge Advocate-General's office on Palestinian violations of the Oslo Accords, which was leaked to the media in January 1995, noted that the "Palestinian police" had:

As time passed, the infringements became more serious. Convicted criminals, including men who had murdered Israelis and suspected Arab "collaborators", were recruited. Human rights abuses became commonplace. Arab human rights activists complained of abduction, detention without trial, torture and murder. PA security force members began operating illegally in Jerusalem. And at least 12 Palestinians died in PA custody between 1994 and early 1997.

In July 1995, the then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, agreed the PA could post civil policemen in all 460 Arab villages in the territories, including those just outside the Jerusalem municipal boundary and along the pre-1967 borders. The move completely contravened an undertaking the premier had made several weeks earlier, to the effect Israel would not allow PLO police to be posted in the Jerusalem area, along the pre-1967 borders, or in the Jordan Valley.
(The Jerusalem Post, July 23, 1995).

Violations exposed

DESPITE reports of co-operation between PLO and Israeli troops on joint patrols, two ominous incidents banished any illusion that the Israelis could completely trust their Arab counterparts.

In July 1994, two Palestinians were killed and 75 hurt when riots erupted in Gaza. Eighteen IDF soldiers and border policemen were hurt. The IDF accused the PA troops of intentionally shooting at the Israelis.

Considerably more serious was the violence which flared in September 1996, following the opening by Israeli authorities of an exit to an ancient tunnel in Jerusalem's Old City. As mobs rampaged, Palestinian troops turned their guns on the Israelis in clashes which left 61 Arabs and 15 Israeli soldiers dead.

Another threat to stability has been the infighting which has become a feature in the PLO security forces. In one incident last year, an aide to police commander General Nasser Yusef was abducted by Preventive Security Service (PSS) agents and held for several months, during which time he was allegedly mistreated and pushed from a second-storey window. Arab sources said the aide, Major Farid Assalya, had been accused of treason and espionage, apparently because he co-operated with US efforts to obtain the extradition of those responsible for the 1985 terrorist abduction of the Achille Lauro cruise ship and the killing of American citizen Leon Klinghoffer.
(The Jerusalem Post, September 20, 1996).
On another occasion, Yusuf himself was placed under suspicion of treason, as Arafat loyalists feared the general was becoming too popular and eyeing Arafat's job.

And all the time, the numbers of "policemen" grew and grew. In February 1995, the force was 16,000 strong, or so the PA informed Israel already 7,000 more than were allowed by that stage of the agreement.

Currently, depending on whose figures are believed and the PA is not giving out official numbers the army is anywhere from 28,000 to 80,000-strong. "Under the terms of the Interim Agreement," the Israeli government said in a statement released last October, "the Palestinian Police at this stage should comprise no more than 24,000 policemen. A further 6,000 may be recruited at a later stage. Instead, the government said, the PA had more than 28,000 "policemen".

But other sources put the true number of "policemen" at closer to 50,000. And after last September's violence, Israeli intelligence sharply revised its assessments of Palestinian military strength, with defence sources saying they were now contending with up to nine security services, and at least 80,000 fighters with automatic weapons, including thousands of armed men from Fatah and other organisations.

Recently, that figure of 80,000 was confirmed by one of the PA's most outspoken Arab critics, human rights activist Bassam Eid, who questioned the need for such a large security force to police a population of less than two million.

Human rights abused

EID has called on the European Union, as the principal sponsor of the PA security forces, to boycott Arafat's administration, which he said had created a climate of fear among Palestinians, quashed all dissent, and routinely used torture and arbitrary arrest against opponents. (Eid was himself kidnapped from his Jerusalem home and briefly held by Arafat's personal unit, Force 17, a year ago. Several months earlier, he had co-authored a report on Palestinian violence against alleged "collaborators". PSS chief Jibril Rajoub was cited as responsible. In return, he called Eid "an Israeli agent" a charge which many saw as tantamount to a death sentence.)

Eid's concerns were echoed last month, when the New York-based human rights organisation Human Rights Watch asked the leaders of EU states to speak out against persistent human rights abuses by the PA when they met Arafat to initial an important EU-PA trade agreement.

In a letter to European Council of Ministers' president Hans van Mierlo, the director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, said "the EU's involvement as the chief funder of Palestinian police programmes gives it a special responsibility to speak out".

He called on EU leaders to highlight what he called the arbitrary and abusive behaviour of PLO security forces.

"The deteriorating human rights situation in the area of Palestinian self-rule requires such an initiative on your part," Roth wrote."The first two-and-a-half years [of the autonomy agreement] have been characterised by arbitrary and abusive conduct by the manifold security agencies of the PA.

"Hundreds of persons have been arrested arbitrarily; the majority of these were never questioned or charged with a criminal offence. Our field research indicates that detainees who have been interrogated have routinely been subjected to torture, and at least 11 persons have died in detention."

In response to some of these complaints, Arafat said in February the PA would not tolerate abuses by its security forces. "We are the people who have suffered. We don't accept anything against human rights," he said, adding that offenders had been and would continue to be punished. Away from the television cameras and reporters' notebooks, many of those living in Arafat's fiefdom remain unconvinced. Arafat's army may be the most dangerous violation yet of the Oslo Accords. And yet, virtually nobody is talking about it.


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