No fighting force

August 05, 2005

As HEAD of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat surrounded himself with myriad police and security forces, so many it was tough to keep count and know who reported to whom. Fiefdoms were created and divided loyalties ensued. Israel often complained about the Palestinian forces and seized every opportunity to crush them during the recent years of terrorist attacks.

That dual legacy has left Mr. Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, ill equipped for the mission Israel and the Bush administration demand of him -- to fight terrorism. An independent review of the Palestinian forces has reached the same conclusion, and the U.S. military envoy, Lt. Gen. William E. Ward, admits that Palestinian forces can't be relied on to contain violence during the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. These assessments confirm what many Palestinian leaders have asserted for some time: that the expectations of Mr. Abbas on the terrorism front don't mesh with post-intifada realities.

Despite the Palestinian security forces' many handicaps and failings, Mr. Abbas has dispatched them to battle militants in Gaza during recent violence. That shows his commitment, but absent a properly trained and equipped force that adheres to a strict command structure, Mr. Abbas will have to rely again on his negotiating skills to persuade militants not to disrupt the Gaza withdrawal.

Israel can't continue to make demands on Mr. Abbas without allowing him to properly outfit his men. The U.S. has to bolster its efforts to reform the Palestinian security system. And, just as critical, Mr. Abbas has to convince Palestinians that a professional force is in their best interest. If Israel is provoked as it withdraws troops and settlers from Gaza, the disengagement could be a disheartening end instead of a hopeful beginning.

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