JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The United States is considering expanding assistance beyond Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential guard to members of the largest force under his command, Western and Palestinian officials said.
Providing U.S. funds to train elements of Abbas’s National Security Forces (NSF), in addition to the presidential guard, could increase U.S. involvement in the violent power struggle between Abbas’s Fatah faction and the governing Hamas movement.
Officials said members of the NSF would undergo a review process to ensure they are qualified and have no ties to militant groups before undergoing the training.
The nearly 4,000-man presidential guard is far better armed and trained but tiny in comparison to the NSF, the closest thing the Palestinians have to an army.
Palestinian officials estimate that the NSF have as many as 40,000 members. Western diplomats involved in the matter say the number of “active” members is closer to 20,000 and that a portion of those would be eligible to participate in the U.S.-funded training.
“They need a lot of work,” said a Palestinian security source who has been involved in evaluating the forces.
President Bush has committed $86 million to provide training and non-lethal equipment to forces loyal to Abbas. Guns and ammunition are being supplied by key U.S. allies Jordan and Egypt, with Israeli approval, Israeli officials say.
Diplomats say Abbas’s military build-up is meant to counter strides by Hamas in smuggling in more powerful weapons into Gaza for its fast-growing “Executive Force” and armed wing, known as the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades.
Some analysts have warned that fighting between Hamas and Fatah could turn into a proxy war, with the United States supporting Abbas and Iran backing Hamas.
U.S. assistance has so far been limited to the presidential guard, which is projected to grow in the near term to about 4,700 members. Palestinian officials say the presidential guard could eventually have 10,000 members.
Western diplomats and Palestinian security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a portion of the $86 million could be spent on training the NSF.
“Part of it could provide training to elements of the NSF but not the entire force,” said a senior Western diplomat involved in the program. “Serious vetting requirements will be put in place before anything happens,” he added.
It is unclear how many members of the National Security Forces could undergo the training and where it would be conducted. American officials would not be directly involved in providing instruction, the diplomats said.
A Western diplomat involved in the program said U.S. officials have had limited contact with the National Security commanders in recent months but that Washington has not provided the forces with any equipment, training or funding, he said.
First deployed in the narrow coastal strip in May, Hamas’s “Executive Force” has grown from an estimated 3,000 members to nearly 6,000. Hamas has vowed a further expansion.
Palestinian security sources say Abbas’s security advisers have been stockpiling weapons in Gaza and the occupied West Bank to bolster Abbas’s National Security Forces and General Intelligence service.
The sources said Abbas has yet to authorize distribution of the weapons.
Violence between Hamas and Fatah has increased sharply in the last month since unity government talks broke down and Abbas called for new elections.