U.S. aid to Palestinian security pointless, Israeli military says

Israel must be in charge, officer says

Powell insists Tenet effort will proceed

May 16, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - A senior Israeli military official said yesterday that there is no point in the United States undertaking a diplomatic mission to rebuild the Palestinian security force while Yasser Arafat is in charge and that Israel must retain responsibility for security in the occupied territories.

But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell insisted that the United States plans to proceed with the effort and said that Arafat had made encouraging statements about the need for reforms.

The starkly contrasting positions are part of a broad debate over efforts to reform the Palestinian Authority.

The Bush administration has argued that the reform must take place, to give the Palestinians hope that they can one day have their own state and to give them tools to stop terrorist attacks.

Israeli military officials, for their part, are concerned that a strengthened Palestinian Authority could become a tool for militants determined to mount a new wave of suicide bombings.

President Bush has announced that he plans to send CIA Director George J. Tenet to the Middle East to begin building a unified Palestinian security force.

But the senior Israeli official, outlining the views of the Israeli Defense Force to a small group of reporters on condition of anonymity, said it was senseless for Tenet to undertake his mission at this time, because reforming the Palestinian security forces could not be accomplished while Arafat is in charge.

"I cannot see any utility for it," the Israeli military official said, referring to plans for Tenet's mission. "The situation is not mature for such a mission."

The official also sought to prepare U.S. public opinion for a military operation against Hamas and other militant groups in the Gaza Strip. He argued that the militants are using the area as a sanctuary to make mortars and plan new attacks.

An Israeli military operation in Gaza was deferred this month for political reasons, he said, but will eventually take place - probably after the next terrorist attack inside Israel.

"It will happen," the official said. "It is a question of time."

Some critics have said that an Israeli military offensive in the densely populated Gaza Strip would be a bloody affair, particularly because Israel suffered its heaviest losses recently in West Bank fighting in the Jenin refugee camp and militants in Gaza have been preparing for an offensive.

But the official said the Israeli military is prepared to fight in Gaza, even if it means doing so inside refugee camps.

He said the Israeli reservists fighting in Jenin had allowed their attack to become bogged down and stalled, errors that he insisted would not be repeated.

The official said Israel would continue to use helicopter gunships to support its ground forces, but would avoid bombing raids to limit civilian casualties.

Powell said he plans to meet with Tenet today to discuss his trip to the Middle East, which he said would occur "within the not-too-distant future."

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