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For Abbas, a crisis of perception

For Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, no issue is more pivotal to his support from the outside world -- or more treacherous to his stature with his own people -- than demands that he reform Palestinian forces and disarm and disband militant groups.
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The entryway of the Nablus police headquarters is plastered with posters memorializing dead comrades. Some were killed by Israeli tank fire. Others were picked off by Israeli army sharpshooters. In addition to being police officers, most were members of Palestinian militant organizations.

In the drab hallways of the Nablus station house, the policemen on the posters are considered heroes, resistance fighters who died defending their homeland against an occupation army.

In Israel, they are considered terrorists.

For Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, no issue is more pivotal to his support from the outside world -- or more treacherous to his stature with his own people -- than Israeli and U.S. demands that he reform Palestinian security forces and disarm and disband militant groups. His key plan for accomplishing those tasks is to integrate the fighters into official Palestinian security agencies, with the ultimate aim, Abbas says, of creating "one law, one authority, one weapon."

The Israeli government, which wants Palestinian forces to crack down on suicide bombers and prevent militant attacks, opposes any integration proposal that would keep weapons in the hands of men it considers terrorists. Palestinians, who want their police to protect them from crime as well as Israeli invasions, generally favor the idea.

Many disputes
The dispute is one of many that have stalled progress in Abbas's reform plans, contributing to the perceptions of Palestinians and Israelis alike that, almost four months into the job, Abbas has not done enough to overhaul the Palestinian security forces and has no strategy to accomplish more.

The issue is particularly pressing because of Israeli plans to withdraw troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip this summer. Many are concerned that Palestinian security forces will not be strong enough to restrain armed groups during the pullout or be able to control Gaza afterward.

"He seems to be the type who believes that with enough goodwill, everything will work out, and that's turning out not to be the case," said Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, an organization based in Brussels that involves itself in conflicts worldwide.

Militants have stormed meetings across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, demanding more rights and a greater voice in Abbas's government. The old guard of political leaders and security officials who grew up under Abbas's predecessor, Yasser Arafat, are clinging stubbornly to power, undercutting Abbas's reform efforts. And Israeli officials accuse Abbas of doing nothing to disarm militants, and have frozen promises to turn over more West Bank cities to Palestinian control and to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal.

Abbas, known popularly as Abu Mazen, has rejected Israeli demands to go after the armed groups militarily, saying it is better to co-opt them.

"The big achievement of Abu Mazen is that he's been able to shift the whole thinking in the Palestinian arena from military options to the option of negotiations by peaceful means," said the Palestinian Authority's deputy foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. "He's been able to influence Palestinian militant groups to follow" a more conciliatory style of Islam "rather than the bin Laden style," he said, referring to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Abbas's reform mission is daunting: reorganize an octopus-like police and military apparatus created for political expediency rather than security; revamp an institution of 58,000 people that has been a critical employment agency for a financially feeble government with few social safety nets; and find a balance between the demands of armed groups for a role in the new Palestinian government and Israeli ultimatums that they be stripped of their weapons.

But for many Palestinians as well as Israelis, it is often difficult to distinguish between Palestinian militants and Palestinian security officers.

"We're part of Fatah -- we're already part of the security forces," a senior Nablus commander in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Abbas's Fatah political movement, said of the president's proposal. The commander declined to be identified by name because he is wanted by Israel.

The difference between the Israeli and Palestinian views of the security issue was starkly illustrated on a recent night when Israeli troops drove into Nablus, stopped in front of the police station and began "shooting randomly," according to Col. Bassam Darweesh, a deputy commander of the Nablus police force. "We got reports of five robbery cases and we were not capable of doing anything because we were trapped."

Israeli military officials said the soldiers were hunting wanted militants.

A weakened police force
During the 4 1/2 -year Palestinian uprising, or intifada, the Israeli army has demolished the headquarters of the Palestinian security organization, destroyed its vehicles and prohibited Palestinian police from carrying weapons. That was enforced throughout the West Bank with orders to shoot to kill anyone seen on the street openly carrying arms -- the assumption being that anyone with a weapon was a terrorist. And in some cases, Palestinian security officers were militants who participated in attacks on Israeli civilians, settlers and soldiers. In one case, a Bethlehem policeman blew himself up on a city bus in Jerusalem in January 2004, killing 11 people.

For the Israeli public, the weapons ban effectively equated Palestinian police with terrorists; for Palestinians, it undermined the authority of the police, because every time a police officer spotted an Israeli patrol, whether or not he was a militant, he ran to hide.

"The security services proved a failure in confronting the situation," said Abu Hamad Masaem, a political activist in the Balata refugee camp on the edge of Nablus. "If they can't protect us from occupation, how the heck can you come and tell us what to do? So they lost their power."

Militants themselves are not fully behind Abbas's integration plan.

"The backbone of al-Aqsa see themselves as involved in a political struggle," said Rabbani, of the International Crisis Group. "They took up arms against the occupation, and the idea of disarming before the underlying causes are addressed -- telling them, 'Lay down your weapons and we'll give you a salary' -- is insulting."

Almost three months ago, Israeli officials said they would return security control to Palestinian forces in five West Bank towns, but after making the transfer in Jericho and Tulkarm, they have delayed handing over authority in the final three. The Israelis said the Palestinian side had not lived up to its part of the agreement by collecting weapons from wanted militants in Jericho and Tulkarm, but Abbas disputed that assertion, saying last week that weapons had been collected from all wanted militants in the two cities.

After repeated pledges to consolidate the 12 unwieldy Palestinian security forces into three main branches -- an effort Abbas began two years ago when he served briefly as the appointed prime minister under Arafat -- Abbas recently named three new chiefs to preside over a reorganized security apparatus with three divisions.

In an effort to remove a top layer of long-entrenched officers, Palestinian lawmakers approved a mandatory retirement age of 60 for security officials. Foreign ministry official Abdullah said that 1,076 officers are currently being retired and that an additional 1,000 will be ordered to retire in a second phase.

Abbas also has asked lawmakers to impose a law that would allow commanders to serve in the same position for no more than four years, but the proposal has yet to be voted on by the legislature and is opposed by senior security officials.

A first step?
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator with Israel, said complaints that Abbas was not moving quickly or forcefully enough were "nonsense."

"We've done so many things . . . as far as aborting suicide attacks and other attacks, and they know it," he said. "The quiet and cessation of violence is Abu Mazen's doing, stopping the rockets in Gaza, reconfiguring the security operations in Gaza, preparing for legislative elections. I'm not saying we've done everything or that we've finished, but it's a start."

But Israeli officials say the administrative and bureaucratic reforms, while a step forward, are not enough.

"They don't fight the terror infrastructure, the terrorists themselves," said an Israeli defense official who declined to be quoted by name. "They are trying to solve it in a peaceful way, and the result is that they do nothing active against terrorists."

Anderson reported from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Sufian Taha contributed to this report.