November 27, 2004
Palestinian Security Unit to Be Dismantled
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - A top Palestinian official said Saturday he would dismantle an elite security unit accused of abuse and corruption in a first step toward overhauling the tangled network of Palestinian security forces.
Palestinian Preventive Security chief Brig. Gen. Rashid Abu Shbak also announced plans to merge the ruling Fatah party's myriad militant groups to make them more accountable for their actions and to end the gun chaos on Palestinian streets.
The United States has long demanded a major overhaul of the Palestinian security services, including disbanding many of the rival - and in some cases warring - forces, but faced stiff resistance from Yasser Arafat, who used the forces to maintain his hold on power.
Since Arafat's death Nov. 11, his successors have taken steps to restore confidence in the Palestinian leadership - tainted by accusations of corruption under Arafat - calling for elections to choose a new leader and promising to be more open and accountable.
As part of that effort, Shbak said Saturday he would abolish the Gaza Security and Protections unit - nicknamed the "death squad" by Palestinians - in the wake of accusations that some of its members abused their powers and used intimidation to rule the streets of Gaza.
"We are facing a new phase and we must say farewell to chaos and to all those who cause it in the Palestinian street," Shbak told reporters in Gaza City. "We must clear the air of past mistakes of the previous era."
The 70-person unit was formed more than a year ago to crack down on militant groups and track and arrest high-profile criminals in Gaza. But some members of the unit were accused of turning into criminals themselves, confiscating land, smuggling weapons and intimidating the general public with threats of violence.
Shbak also announced the creation of a committee within Fatah to work to merge its fragmented and decentralized armed militias, including the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group responsible for many suicide bombing attacks on Israelis.
"These groups must be brought under control and there must be a central leadership that can be held responsible for their actions," Shbak said.
The committee will pursue ways to bring these armed groups under control without interfering with their "principles of resistance," indicating Fatah had no intention of pushing them to end the 4-year-old armed uprising against Israel, he said.
Meanwhile, in the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, about 1,000 Palestinians, including scores of armed, masked militants affiliated with Fatah, demonstrated for the continuation of the uprising.
The demonstrators also declared their support for Mahmoud Abbas, the new head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Fatah's candidate in Jan. 9 presidential elections.
Abbas, 69, is a pragmatist who has spoken out against the uprising and is believed to be the candidate favored by Israel and the United States.
The rally came a day after jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti dropped his plans to run in the elections and endorsed Abbas.
Barghouti, 45, is the leader of the Fatah movement's young guard, which has been agitating for reform and a chance to capture leadership positions currently monopolized by older politicians.
Fatah has selected Abbas as its candidate and, in an effort to persuade Barghouti to drop his planned challenge, announced Friday it would hold long-delayed party elections in August, the first poll to fill the top party posts in 16 years.
"A whole generation within Fatah was marginalized, and now it will be able to be represented," said Mohammed Hourani, a young Fatah leader.
The announced elections, as well as fears that Barghouti's candidacy would split the Fatah vote and allow another candidate to win the presidential election, helped push Barghouti out of the race.
Barghouti is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison after being convicted of murder in attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.
Fatah officials Saturday called on the Palestinian leadership to hold parliamentary elections May 15, the anniversary of the day Israel declared its independence in 1948, considered a day of tragedy by the Palestinians.
Also, a 4-year-old girl, Shaima Abu Shammaleh, was in serious condition after Israeli soldiers shot her in the mouth as she stood in front of her home, witnesses and medical officials said. The army had no immediate comment.