April 28, 2006

Western powers seek broader role for Abbas’s guard

By Adam Entous

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - When Juhanna Sankelo and
fellow monitors speed to work along the Gaza-Egyptian border,
they are escorted by two Dodge RAM trucks packed with heavily
armed, black-clad men loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas.

European monitors say the presidential guard's show of
force at the Rafah terminal has bolstered security, reduced
smuggling and improved the flow of travelers at the only
Palestinian-controlled border crossing.

The deployment has also stoked tensions with Hamas and
other security services, and put a spotlight on the expanding
role Western powers envision for the elite presidential guard.

"There has been a shift," said a Western diplomat involved
in the deliberations. After years of bolstering the so-called
preventive security service, the United States and Europe are
"turning to the presidential guard as the one to back."

Unlike the presidential guard, which solely answers to
Abbas, preventive security falls under the Hamas-led Interior
Ministry, which is being shunned by Washington.

U.S. and European diplomats say the presidential guard
should take the lead in guarding all of Gaza's crossings and
eventually the Allenby Bridge linking the West Bank to Jordan.

"The situation has improved" since the arrival of the
presidential guard, said Sankelo of Finland after being
escorted to Rafah in an armor-plated vehicle wearing a
flack-jacket and anti-fragmentation helmet. "There was a clear

The quartet of mediating powers -- the United States, the
EU, the U.N. and Russia -- are considering providing funding to
expand the 2,500-member presidential guard, officials said.

Under an initial proposal, the force would add between 500
and 1,000 men, using Western aid for training and equipment.
"They want to build up the forces under Abbas," said a U.S.
official familiar with the discussions.

Another source close to U.S. deliberations said the goal
was to create "a credible force to fight terrorism if Hamas

If expanded to 3,500 members, the presidential force would
rival in size a new police force being set up by Hamas, whose
charter calls for Israel's destruction.


Israeli analyst Ehud Yaari, a specialist in Palestinian
issues, said: "Everybody is racing to ... beef up these units.
Down the road there might be a showdown."

But Yaari downplayed the chances that a bigger presidential
guard would be able to exert much influence. "They can't stand
up to the other forces."

While the United States has issued orders barring most
dealings with Palestinian security forces, it made exceptions
for Abbas, his guard and the intelligence apparatus he

"If the president asks us to go to another border, we are
capable and we can do it quickly," Musbah El-Bhaisi, commander
of the presidential guard, said during a tour of Rafah.

One of Abbas's biggest power plays since Hamas trounced his
Fatah faction in January elections came on April 11 when he
ordered his presidential guard to take control of Rafah.

The border was run by Israelis until the Jewish state
withdrew from Gaza last year. Israel now monitors Rafah using a
system of 40 cameras, some hidden behind one-way mirrors.

Abbas's decision to exert control over Rafah was meant to
reassure Europe that its 65 monitors would be protected and
need not withdraw. British and U.S. monitors withdrew last
month from a West Bank prison, allowing Israel to seize a
militant leader, an embarrassment Abbas hoped not to repeat.

A European official described the growing Western focus on
the presidential guard as a marriage of convenience. "They're
the best of two evils," the official said, noting that some
members of the presidential guard were former Force 17 members.
Israel had accused Force 17 of involvement in terrorism, a
charge Palestinian officials denied.

Fatah official Jibril al-Rajoub said the presidential guard
was gaining support because of its reputation for discipline.
"They want someone who will do the job, do the mission."