JERUSALEM (AP) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hopes to beef up his loyalist forces with Palestine Liberation Organization troops stationed in Jordan, Palestinian officials said, as rival Palestinian factions bolstered their ranks in anticipation of a feared civil war.
Israel has objected in the past to letting members of the Jordan-based Badr Brigade enter Palestinian areas. But with clashes intensifying between Abbas’ Fatah Party and forces loyal to the militantly anti-Israel Hamas government, Israeli officials said they would consider allowing them in, according to the Palestinian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because no decision had been made. Israeli authorities were not immediately available for comment Saturday.
Palestinian officials did not say how many Badr forces Abbas hopes to mobilize. What is most important to him is that he would command their loyalty as head of the PLO, the officials said.
Abbas, elected separately last year, is nominally the supreme commander of all seven Palestinian security branches, and most security personnel were hired by Fatah, which controlled the Palestinian Authority for more than a decade.
But after Hamas swept Fatah from office in January elections, it set up its own militia, which now numbers 5,700 armed men, and announced plans to recruit an additional 1,500 forces in the West Bank, Fatah’s stronghold.
The rival security forces have clashed frequently in the Gaza Strip in recent weeks as political tensions between the two sides grow. The violence has left more than a dozen dead and stoked fears of a bloody showdown.
The threat of heightened unrest led Palestinian officials from both sides to increase police presence on Saturday.
In Gaza, police in blue-and-white camouflage uniforms deployed around the parliament building, and in the West Bank town of Ramallah, security personnel were posted outside parliament, the prime minister’s office and the Education Ministry.
In an attempt to ease tensions, a coordinating committee for all Palestinian factions, including Fatah and Hamas, met on Friday night in Gaza and agreed to remove all their non-uniformed gunmen from the streets.
The confrontations have heated up amid Abbas’ efforts to ease crippling international sanctions by persuading Hamas to moderate its anti-Israel stance and ally with Fatah in a coalition government.
The European Union, U.S. and other donors cut off hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas took power in March. Despite growing hardship in the Palestinian areas, Hamas has rejected international calls to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Abbas plans to dissolve the Hamas-led government within two weeks if the Islamic militant group does not agree to a coalition with Fatah, Palestinian officials said Friday.
Meanwhile, Palestinian factions that kidnapped an Israeli soldier four months ago offered conflicting assessments Saturday on whether a prisoner swap was imminent.
Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, said his faction has agreed to an Egyptian proposal to release Cpl. Gilad Shalit in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. “There is an Egyptian proposal that would include the release of our Palestinian prisoners and we agreed on this proposal,” he said. “We expect a solution to our prisoners case in the near future.” But a spokesman for the military wing of the Palestinians’ ruling Hamas Party said prospects for an imminent deal have faded. “There were hopes for a deal some days ago, but there’s no new advances because the Zionist enemy hasn’t said anything on accepting the conditions we set forward,” said spokesman Abu Obeidah, who would not be more specific.
Israeli officials have said they were unaware of any progress to win Shalit’s release.
Shalit was captured June 25 in a cross-border raid and is believed to be held in Gaza. His abduction sparked an Israeli military offensive there that has killed more than 200 Palestinians, most of them militants.
Separately, Abbas confidant Saeb Erekat announced in Ramallah that the Palestinians’ gross domestic product was projected to drop 28 percent in 2006 to US$2.9 billion (¤2.3 billion) from US$4.04 billion in 2005. The projections were based on data from the first nine months of the year, Erekat said.
Investments this year are projected to drop 60 percent to US$400 million (¤315 million) from US$1 billion in 2005, he said. Erekat blamed the decline on the international aid freeze and Israeli closures of vital border crossings. He warned that if the economic decline continued, the Palestinian areas would face “total collapse.”
Senior diplomats from 11 countries called Saturday for a multilateral approach to resolving the Middle East conflict, proposing an urgent revision of the “road map” process and an international conference to end what it called the current state of stagnation. “The time has come for a new effort aimed at solving the problems that lie at the heart of the Middle East crisis,” the ministers from countries bordering the Mediterranean said.
They were attending a meeting of the Foromed group in Alicante, Spain. Described as a group of “like-minded” countries, Foromed was created through an initiative by Egypt and France in 1994 to boost political, economic and cultural cooperation in the Mediterranean region long hindered by the Middle East conflict.