U.S. Hopes to Strengthen Abbas

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week persuaded skeptical Congressional leaders to allow the U.S. to spend $43 million beefing up Palestinian security forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas. She countered Congressional concerns over aid reaching terrorists now that Abbas has bucked the U.S. by joining with Hamas in a national unity government, pointing out that the money would be spent on securing borders into Gaza and strengthening the Palestinian security force responsible for stopping weapons being smuggled into the territory.

The $43 million will mostly be devoted to training and equipping Abbas's 4,000-strong Presidential Guard, whose primary responsibilities are to protect the president and visiting dignitaries — such as Secretary Rice herself — and to guard the crossings into the Palestinian territory of Gaza at Rafah and Karni. But some Western envoys fear that strengthening Abbas' forces could help unravel the unity government. International observers and Palestinians claim that Abbas' Praetorian guard was hardly neutral during the recent civil conflict that wracked the Palestinian territories as gunmen from Fatah and Hamas traded fire for days on end: The president's forces laid siege to the Islamic University in Gaza, which has many Hamas sympathizers among its students, destroying classrooms, libraries and a computer center. Palestinians and some Western diplomats monitoring the events in Gaza say that channeling resources to Palestinian security forces on the basis of their loyalty to President Abbas is unlikely to dissuade his rivals from continuing to build up their own armed capabilities, as both sides prepare for the possibility that they will once again take to the streets to settle their differences.

The U.S. intends to spend a further $16 million modernizing security technology at the Karni crossing that links Gaza to Israel. At present, some 30 to 40 trucks are manually searched each day, severely restricting the economic viability of export-oriented agriculture and dairy operations in Gaza. A new plan, drawn up by U.S. Army general Keith Dayton, envisages installing the same X-ray machines used to screen trucks at U.S. borders at Karni. By allowing up to 400 commercial trucks to pass from Gaza to Israel each day, the U.S. hopes to stimulate the Palestinian economy.

If the Palestinian unity government were to unravel, of course, its demise would would unlikely be mourned in Washington — Secretary Rice has made no secret of the fact that she was disappointed by the compact concluded between Abbas and Hamas in Mecca, under Saudi guidance. But her focus remains on nudging Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Abbas to keep talking. The two have announced plans to meet next week, keeping a commitment both made to Rice when she met with them last month. The Secretary of State hopes that regular contact between the two men will develop sufficient trust to allow them to broach discussions over the shape of a two-state solution to the conflict. But there are no peace negotiations on the immediate agenda. Indeed, the most intense — if indirect — bargaining under way right now involves Hamas and Israel, over the list of the Palestinian prisoners Israel will be required to release in exchange for the return of Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier seized last summer on the Israeli side of the Gaza border. Israel is balking at Hamas's inclusion on its list of men Israel says have blood on their hands; Hamas is saying that there won't be a deal if they're removed from the list.

With reporting by Tim McGirk/Jerusalem and Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem