Saturday, January 22, 2005

Abbas Deploys Forces in Gaza to Prevent Attacks on Israel

The New York Times
January 22, 2005
Abbas Deploys Forces in Gaza to Prevent Attacks on Israel

BEIT HANUN, Gaza Strip, Jan. 21 - Palestinian security forces in modest numbers took up positions here and elsewhere in northern Gaza on Friday with orders to prevent Hamas and other militant groups from firing mortars and Qassam rockets at Israeli settlements and nearby Israeli towns like Sederot.

The deployment, by Palestinians in various uniforms, some in new pickup trucks, was ordered by their new president, Mahmoud Abbas, after Israel threatened to move into Gaza in force to stop the attacks.

The action was the most visible sign to date that Mr. Abbas would try to control the militants and demilitarize the intifada, as he promised in his campaign. It was welcomed by Israel, which has demanded that Mr. Abbas take concrete steps to end attacks against Israeli civilians before political contacts are resumed.

But Friday's deployments, incomplete and somewhat symbolic, provide no guarantee of an end to the attacks, and Israel has promised to respond "with great force" if attacks continue.

Mr. Abbas has made it clear that he is not willing to confront the armed radicals of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, let alone disarm them and destroy their weapons caches and rocket factories, as Israel insists that he do as part of the Palestinian commitment to the peace plan called the road map. Instead, he wants to co-opt the militants and negotiate a cease-fire with them.

Still, Friday marked an important change of tone. Mr. Abbas's predecessor, Yasir Arafat, did little to restrain the militants since the current intifada, or uprising, began in September 2000. Israel regularly charged Mr. Arafat with using terrorism as a tactic, while Mr. Abbas has opposed its use as counterproductive to negotiating an independent Palestinian state.

Today is part of a four-day Muslim holiday, Id al-Adha, so Gaza was sleepy. About 10 members of the Palestinian security forces staffed a post on the edge of town, a small increase, while others were deployed near the Erez checkpoint. The numbers increased during the day.

Another group of 75 men in nine pickup trucks posed for photographers, then dispersed to various sites, with one group deploying in northern Gaza in a field often used for rocket launchings. In Beit Lahiya, about 70 members of Palestinian military intelligence, in red berets, were on patrol in trucks.

They are the first of what the Palestinians say will be 2,500 troops deployed throughout Gaza, which has been an almost lawless zone, with rival security forces controlling street corners and neighborhoods.

Beit Hanun is preparing for local elections next week, and Hamas flags flap from the lampposts. On the edge of town, Said Abu Salah, 39, a Palestinian farmer, expressed deep ambivalence about the deployment.

"Will the deployment make me safe?" he said. "I don't know. I'm worried that the Palestinians might set up a security zone along the border and take some of our land. If it becomes calm, I will be the first to support it." But he was skeptical. It was not the right of Mr. Abbas, he said, "to say, 'Stop the intifada,' and offer security to Israel."

His farm and his brother's, mostly citrus trees, are adjacent and less than a mile from the border. Israelis bulldozed the farms in 2001 during an incursion to stop the rocket fire, so the two men now work on other farms. Mr. Salah's son, Eid, now 19, was hit by Israeli fire two years ago while working in a field and lost two fingers.

"As long as there is occupation the resistance should be there," Mr. Salah said. "It's the only dignity we have left."

Mr. Abbas is continuing his talks with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which his office called "positive," to negotiate a cease-fire and a power-sharing arrangement, part of a new "Palestinian national consensus" from which to negotiate with Israel.

To that end, a local Hamas spokesman, Mushir al-Masri, said Friday that the group was suspending its rocket and mortar attacks while the talks with Mr. Abbas continued.

"One can't be negotiating and firing rockets at the same time," Mr. Masri said. "It just doesn't work."

He spoke on a day when Ella Abuksis, a 17-year-old girl from Sederot, died from a shrapnel wound to her head from a Hamas rocket that landed last Saturday. Ms. Abuksis threw herself on her brother, 10, who escaped with minor injuries. Her parents changed her name, while she was in a coma, to Ayala Chaya - chaya means life - to try to change her fate. She was buried in Sederot on Friday afternoon.

Mr. Masri described the talks with Mr. Abbas as moving in "a positive direction." But Hamas insists that as a condition for a cease-fire, Israel agree to halt military activity inside the Gaza Strip and stop killing Hamas leaders. Israel is not yet willing to make that pledge, saying only that quiet will be answered with quiet.

In the effort to reach a new Palestinian consensus and find a common base with Mr. Abbas's Fatah movement and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas leaders in the West Bank and Gaza have said they are willing to accept the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state on all of the territory beyond Israel's 1967 boundary lines, including East Jerusalem.

Hamas argues that such a state would be a way station toward a Palestinian state on all of the territory of Palestine - in other words, that Israel will one day disappear. But even a Palestinian state on 1967 lines is unacceptable to Israel.

The new position of Hamas, realistic or not, marks a shift from its traditional position, and according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Hamas has written it down on a document handed to Fatah and other Palestinian factions.

The document emphasizes the "legitimacy of the armed struggle" to end "the occupation in all its forms in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and every centimeter occupied by foreign forces." And it states that "the Zionist enemy is the main enemy of the Palestinian people, because it conquered our land and expelled our nation."

In honor of the Id al-Adha holiday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent messages to Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei saying he hoped for peace and prosperity. Mr. Abbas responded that the two sides should work toward a peace agreement.

The Israeli deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres, praised Mr. Abbas for taking the first steps and said Israel should now begin to ease up on the Palestinians. "It's a very narrow bridge, and care has to be taken not to overload it," Mr. Peres told Israel radio. He suggested that Israel ease its roadblocks and work on problems of water, energy and job creation to benefit Mr. Abbas.

"I'm against keeping bullets in the barrel, against threatening," Mr. Peres said. "There is no need. Everyone knows that we will not agree to Qassam rockets falling on Sederot and its environs. And if the Palestinians can prevent this, this is the best thing. If not, we will have to protect ourselves."

Greg Myre reported from Beit Hanun for this article, and Steven Erlanger from Jerusalem.