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Hamas rise to power produces anxiety inside and outside security forces

RAMALLAH, West Bank—As Islamist hard-liners prepare to take control of the Palestinian Authority for the first time, the quasi-government's soldiers are suspended between a past dominated by the late Yasser Arafat and an uncertain future.

For years, Palestinian security officers loyal to Arafat's long-dominant Fatah Party have rounded up Hamas militants, amassed files on them and gathered intelligence from confidential sources in the movement.

Now that Hamas is rising to power, thousands of Palestinian soldiers could find themselves answering to new Hamas commanders intent on remaking the unwieldy security services in their image.

The outcome could create chaos in the security services, or even provoke a military response should Israel see the takeover as threatening. The notion of a militant group dedicated to the elimination of Israel taking over security has produced plenty of anxiety.

These prospects have created a behind-the-scenes tussle over control of the security forces as Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas begin to build the first Hamas-led government.

"We are in a dark tunnel," said Amin Maqbul, the Palestinian Authority's deputy interior minister. "And I am not sure when we will see the light."

In the week since Hamas stunned the world by capturing a solid majority of the Palestinian parliament and ending decades of Fatah dominance, the rivals have been scrutinizing the laws to decipher who has ultimate control of the 58,000-strong security services.

The Palestinian basic laws—similar to a constitution—give Abbas direct control over only a few security divisions, including the weak 11,000-person National Security Forces and some 2,500 intelligence officials. In a bid to consolidate the fractured security divisions, Abbas issued a decree last year that moved the National Security Forces under the interior minister, according to a report by the U.S.-based Strategic Assessments Initiative, an independent, Washington-based organization devoted to conflict resolution.

The new interior minister, whom the next prime minister will select, has direct authority over another 44,000 security forces charged with keeping the peace in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as preventing attacks on Israel. Since Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council election Jan. 25, it secured the right to choose the prime minister and install a Hamas member or ally as interior minister.

After the election, Abbas told top officials that he—not the interior minister—had ultimate control of security under Palestinian basic law as the commander in chief, according to a 37-year-old security officer who spoke under condition of anonymity because his work is classified

"If we receive an order from the interior minister that is contrary to the president, we will respond to the president," the officer said.

Just what Hamas wants to do in power remains unclear. Israel, the United States and Europe have threatened international isolation if Hamas doesn't renounce violence and accept Israel's right to live side by side with a future Palestinian state, an unlikely prospect.

A legal adviser involved in early discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said Hamas wanted to take over the Interior Ministry so that it had direct control over any efforts to integrate its estimated 5,000 fighters into the security services.

But some Hamas leaders have suggested that its militants continue to be independent and fight Israel, while others have floated the idea of transforming them into a new Palestinian army.

Farhat Asad, who led Hamas' successful election campaign in the West Bank, said the new government wouldn't make disarming its militants or any other militant group a priority, even though it's a step that Palestinian officials are supposed to take under the U.S.-backed "road map" to create a peaceful Palestinian state alongside Israel.

"The resistance is not a target for us," said Asad, whose group long has rejected the road map. "When the Israeli occupation ends, the resistance groups will stop."

Asad said the security services should be used to stop the regular Israeli raids that end in the arrests or killings of Palestinian militants

"We do not need Palestinian security forces to protect internal law and order as much as we need forces to protect us from Israeli forces," Asad said.

If Hamas tried to turn the security forces on the Israeli army, it almost certainly would lead to a massive confrontation that would decimate the Palestinian side, just as Israel crippled it during the prolonged Palestinian uprising.

In any case, Fatah members in the security services are pledging loyalty to Abbas as commander in chief, and he's unlikely to sanction aggressive moves against Israel.

"If the crazy Hamas interior minister asked us to do this job, I would ask him to bring me an F-16" fighter jet, the Palestinian officer said. Palestinian forces lack offensive weapons, much less an air force.

The Palestinian Authority has worked for years—with limited success—to consolidate the fractionalized security services that Arafat created when he was president.

Last year, the Strategic Assessments Initiative found that the security forces were demoralized, fraught with divisions and weakened by unclear chains of command.

Before succeeding Arafat as president last year, Abbas, as prime minister, tried to assert control over the security forces. He failed and resigned over the issue in 2003 after four months on the job amid a power struggle with Arafat.

Under international pressure, Arafat reluctantly agreed to cede formal authority over most of the security forces, but still managed to assert control because a majority of their members were loyal to Fatah.

Now Abbas as president is trying to take back some of the control that he once fought Arafat to give up.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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