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Abbas tries to reform security services
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday ordered the consolidation of competing security forces under a unified command — a step toward meeting a key U.S. and Israeli demand and ending chaos in the Palestinian territories.
The move came as Israeli settlers agreed to negotiate with the government over a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer — a sharp turnaround that could ease the way for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's top policy initiative.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian militant. Abbas charged the killing was a violation of a cease-fire in place since February, according to the Palestinian news agency.
The timing of Abbas' move may be linked to his upcoming trip to the U.S., which has been pressing him to rein in militants.
Information Minister Nabil Shaath said this week Abbas wants his Washington talks to concentrate on Palestinian demands, not those of the United States and Israel. The consolidation order follows efforts to co-opt militants into security forces and dismissal of longtime Gaza and West Bank commanders, steps that should win praise from Washington.
Abbas gave the order to combine the forces into three branches under the authority of the National Security Forces, the Interior Ministry, and the General Intelligence Agency, according to a Palestinian official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
The order expands the responsibilities of Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, who continues to oversee his ministry as well as the National Security forces, which includes elite commando units and military intelligence.
Abbas has already fired two top security commanders — Ismail Jaber and Abdel Razek Majaidie — both associated with the late Yasser Arafat and mentioned frequently in corruption allegations. Naming new commanders for the three consolidated services will be a test of Abbas' clout and ability to wade through the turbulent waters of competing security fiefdoms.
Sharon is counting on Palestinian security forces to take control of Gaza after Israel's pullout in July. Israel's concern is that without serious restructuring of the Palestinian police, the resulting chaos could play into the hands of the violent Islamic Hamas.
Settlers have been threatening to resist evacuation from the 21 Gaza and four West Bank settlements, but there are increasing signs that the opposition might be much more limited than security officials have been predicting.
On Thursday, settler leaders authorized a team of 100 lawyers and assessors to negotiate with the government moving the settlers as a group to the coastal area of Nitzanim in southern Israel not far from Gaza.
Eran Sternberg, a Gaza settler spokesman, said the settlers would continue a nonviolent struggle against the evacuation, but lawyers are needed to protect their interests if the withdrawal takes place.
The lawyers "decided to fight for us so that we can continue our ideological struggle," Sternberg said.
The settler leaders advocate nonviolent resistance while whipping up emotions by comparing the evacuation to human disasters and genocide, and security officials are concerned extremists might open fire on troops during the evacuation.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has instructed the military to work with settlers on a voluntary handover of weapons just before the pullout, the Defense Ministry said Thursday.
But Sternberg said settlers don't plan to turn in weapons voluntarily.
"We have them to protect ourselves against terrorists," he said.
In the West Bank, an Israeli arrest raid turned violent Thursday. The military said forces went into the Balata refugee camp next to the city of Nablus to detain Ibrahim Hashash, 23, from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a group linked to Abbas' Fatah Party.
The military said Hashash opened fire and soldiers shot back, killing him. Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hashash was planning a suicide attack in Jerusalem. But Balata residents said the Israelis opened fire without provocation.
In Gaza, Al Aqsa spokesman Abu Mohammed said his group has the right to retaliate for the killing, but the truce would not be broken.
"This crime will not pass without a harsh reaction that will shake the enemy," he said.