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Abbas moves to challenge militant groups
Updated: 2005-04-04 09:13

After weeks of hesitation, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has finally made moves to challenge the powerful militant groups sowing chaos across the West Bank.

In the end, he was spurred into action by domestic concerns, including an audacious rampage by gunmen through Ramallah and the very real fear of impending electoral defeat, rather than by persistent U.S. and Israeli demands that he crack down on armed groups.

"The Palestinian Authority has been crippled and it's become very evident to the people," Palestinian political analyst Hani Masri says. "It reached a point where people were wondering what value is there in having a leader."

Mahmoud Abbas accepted the resignation of a top security chief on April 2, 2005 and ordered hundreds of Palestinian officers to retire in a bid to reform his forces and halt growing chaos, an official said. Abbas speaks with reporters on his arrival at Amman airport, March 24. (Ali Jarekji/Reuters)
Mahmoud Abbas accepted the resignation of a top security chief on April 2, 2005 and ordered hundreds of Palestinian officers to retire in a bid to reform his forces and halt growing chaos, an official said. Abbas speaks with reporters on his arrival at Amman airport, March 24.[Reuters]
On Saturday, Abbas forced out West Bank security chief Ismail Jaber a corruption-tainted patron of some of the militants and said he would forcibly retire hundreds of senior officers. This was seen as a strong signal that he is serious about security reform and no longer willing to tolerate militants' defiance.

Abbas has picked Nablus security commander Maj. Gen. Nadal Asoli as Jaber's replacement, security officials said Sunday on condition of anonymity because a formal announcement had not been made.

Asoli is the commander of security forces in Nablus. He returned from exile in Tunis with Yasser Arafat in the mid-90s. Unlike Jaber, Asoli's name has not been mentioned in corruption allegations.

Lacking an independent power base, Abbas had resisted taking on the militants since he was elected in January to head the Palestinian Authority after Arafat's death. He hoped instead to co-opt them into the Palestinian security forces.

However, the militants, who have hoarded power during four years of fighting with Israel and have established de facto gang rule in many West Bank towns, resisted and openly challenged Abbas' authority.

Last month, militant leader Zakariye Zubeydi brazenly challenged Palestinian security chief Nasser Yousef for entering the West Bank town of Jenin without first getting his permission.

Yousef exploded in anger when Zubeydi fired a rifle outside police headquarters while he held meetings inside. He demanded the militant's arrest, then quickly backed down and let him go.

Other militants broke into the main jail in Gaza in February and killed three prisoners there as part of a clan feud.

Palestinians are becoming fed up with the lawlessness in their streets, and Abbas has little choice but to tackle the problem quickly if he wants his Fatah Party to have any hope of winning July parliamentary elections. Convinced Fatah is corrupt and ineffective, many Palestinians are turning to the militant Hamas group.

To make matters worse for Abbas, many of those running rampant and challenging his power are actually members of Fatah or the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group affiliated with Fatah. Some of the militants also are members of the very security forces expected to stop them.

"This chaos is harming the Palestinian Authority and Fatah totally, and if they don't reform now, you can say farewell to Fatah," Masri said. "Hamas is powerful, and Fatah is fighting a battle with itself and is at the same time unable to bring law and order to the streets."

Nabil Amr, a legislator close to Abbas, said restoring order has become "a national demand."

Palestinian officials have long resisted Israeli and U.S. pressure to crack down on militants, saying their security forces were badly weakened by four years of fighting with Israel and they feared sparking a civil war.

Israeli officials said Sunday they hoped Abbas was finally prepared to tackle the militants. Gang rule in the West Bank "is the primary problem today that is holding up moving forward on the process of peaceful reconciliation," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

Abbas' hand was forced by last week's violence.

The tension began when Palestinian officials ejected six militants from Abbas' headquarters, the Muqaata, where they had been taking refuge against Israeli capture since 2002.

Furious at being evicted, the men grabbed their rifles Wednesday and shot up the Muqaata, while Abbas was present, before going on a brazen rampage through Ramallah.

They burst into Ziryab, a hip cafe filled with Palestinian intellectuals and foreigners, shot up the windows, smashed wine bottles and sent the patrons fleeing in fear.

About a dozen militants in four cars pulled up in front of Darna, the toniest restaurant in town, and ripped it apart. The gunmen ran through the sprawling restaurant complex, kicking over tables filled with plates, shooting up refrigerators and smashing windows, light bulbs and televisions.

"They pointed their guns in all our faces. It was scary, frantic," said Khader Abu Jihad, a waiter at Darna.

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