Armed Palestinian terrorists continued to defy Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ efforts this week to disarm them or get them to rejoin the Palestinian security forces to which most of them had once belonged.
Unable to get the security situation under control, Abbas was forced to delay his planned trip to the United States to meet with President George W. Bush. The trip had been expected to take place about a week after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to Bush next week.
“He cancelled the trip because he has not made progress on reforms and he understands that without delivering the minimum, the Americans will not continue to fund him and endorse him,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
“He is basically in trouble,” he observed. “The whole system is in trouble, and he is reflecting the structured problem of the Palestinian Authority.”
Zaki Shalom, a specialist in the Arab-Israeli conflict at the Ben-Gurion Research Center, said Abbas saw the handwriting on the wall.
“He is aware that the [Bush] administration is expecting him to do something and he couldn’t come empty handed to Washington,” he said. “So he is not coming and the range of time he is being given is getting shorter and shorter.”
Last weekend, Abbas announced that he was forming two committees, one for the West Bank and one for the Gaza Strip, in an effort to convince 523 men on Israel’s terrorist wanted list to give up their guns. He promised to find them all jobs. The men are from the armed wings of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, which is part of Abbas’ own Fatah movement.
But an Al Aksa fugitive, Kamal Ghanem, told the Associated Press Wednesday that the men have agreed only to “hide our weapons, to keep them out of public view, but we are not going to hand them over to the Palestinian Authority. They asked them to give us the serial numbers of our guns, but we did not.”
The only Israelis murdered in the first three months of the year were those in the Feb. 25 Tel Aviv suicide bombing, but not for lack of trying. A Palestinian was arrested in late February on suspicion of helping Hezbollah plan attacks on senior Israeli officials. And authorities foiled plans to dispatch two suicide bombers and a car bomb to the busy tourist site of the Armored Corps Museum at Latrun. Observers said Abbas’ main problem is primarily with the armed men from Fatah. They reportedly have been responsible for much of the lawlessness against other Palestinians in the West Bank, including kidnappings and extortion.
Last week, Abbas evicted 26 members of the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade sought by Israel who had been holed up for several months in Abbas’ compound in Ramallah known as the Muqaata. Six of those men, along with nine others, then fired upon the compound while Abbas was inside. They also rampaged through the streets, shooting out windows and ransacking several restaurants, forcing patrons to flee in panic. To regain control, Abbas ordered security forces into major West Bank cities last Saturday. He also announced plans to force the retirement of 1,000 Palestinian security officers over the age of 60 to allow a new generation of officers to be recruited.
Inbar pointed out that Abbas needs money to pay the retirees, which only compounds the pressure he is under to make reforms demanded by the U.S. and Israel.
Salah Haider Shafi, a Gaza political analyst, said the slow pace of reform is due to “a lot of resistance in the system. So far [Abbas] hasn’t been able to present any substantial internal reforms.”
Shafi added that Abbas is not prepared to openly confront anyone.
“He was trying to coax the various security agencies to integrate with one another, a job that only Arafat could do,” he observed. “Arafat created the system of different centers of power. All of them were fighting each other, but they all saw themselves as loyal to Arafat. Not everyone sees themselves as loyal to [Abbas].”
There were reports this week that Abbas is on the verge of resigning and Inbar said he is also “in danger of being assassinated. … He is not a strong leader but rather a negotiator, and with criminals you can’t negotiate.”
Israel correspondent Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report.