Middle East


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. We're going to begin in the Middle East this hour, where a struggle is underway for control of the Palestinian security forces. The Palestinian government, led by Hamas, has announced the creation of a new unit in Gaza that includes members of militant factions. It will be headed by the leader of a group that has carried out attacks against Israel. That group has also been blamed for a bombing that killed three Americans in Gaza in 2003. Israel and the U.S. have criticized the new force, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called it illegal and improper. NPR's Eric Westervelt has the story.

It will soon be May, and Hassan Abid Allah(ph), a 40-year-old veteran Palestinian policeman still hasn't been given his salary for March. And it's not at all clear just when he, and tens of thousands of others, will get paid.

Mr. HASSAN ABID ALLAH (Policeman, Palestine): (Through Translator) We feel so frustrated, because we haven't gotten our salaries. It affects everything, our health, our children, our schools, social life. It's an awful feeling.

WESTERVELT: On top of money woes Abid Allah wonders, as do many of his colleagues, who's really in charge of the security forces? Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently appointed a loyalist from his Fatah Party, Rashid Abu Shabak, as Director General of Internal Security. The appointment was seen as a direct challenge to the authority of the new Interior Minister, Said Sayam, a Hamas leader. The Hamas-led parliament balked at the appointment, which is now under review, and last night Sayam punched back. He announced the creation of a new security force that will report directly to him. He said the force will spearhead restoration of law and order in Gaza. Interior Ministry spokesman Khalid Abu Hilal says the minister wants nothing but cooperation with Fatah security men.

Mr. KHALID ABU HILAL (Spokesman, Palestinian Interior Ministry): (Through Translator) There is nothing to concern or to be worried about because his aim and his goal is to use all of these forces in order to bring back order flow, to put an end for this chaos, to bring all corrupt to the court of law. These steps will be supported by everybody.

WESTERVELT: But that support is far from guaranteed. In a protest letter today to Hamas, President Abbas called the appointment illegal, and called on all security personnel "not to abide by these decisions and to consider them non-existent." This new Hamas unit could find itself at odds with thousands who are still loyal to current and ousted Fatah leaders, their clans and extended families. Kareem, a captain in the Fatah-dominated Preventive Security Force, warns that Hamas should tread carefully in tinkering with the security forces. The new Interior Minister, he says, needs to respect the existing lines of authority.

KAREEM (Captain, Palestinian Preventative Security Force): (Through Translator) Our reality is not easy to be given just like this to Sayed Sayam him. We cannot just make our work upside down because there is a new minister. He must understand our needs and he should fit in it. If any minister would come and change these lines, it will be a problem.

WESTERVELT: Whether that problem will result in more street clashes, insubordination or something else is unclear. Gaza has been beset by lawlessness, including shootings and kidnappings, so the battle over who leads the security services is no mere political turf fight. At stake is security in Gaza, and key operational decisions. This new Hamas force will be led by 45-year-old Jamal Abu Samhadana, founder of the Popular Resistance Committees, a militant umbrella group. He told Al Jazeera TV that his new security job won't distract from what he calls his struggle with Israel.

Mr. JAMAL ABU SAMHADANA (Founder, Popular Resistance Committees): (Through Translator) I can still work with the Popular Resistance Committees, with my Resistance brothers. We have common work. My job in the government will not prevent me from continuing my efforts with the Resistance.

WESTERVELT: That's exactly what worries Israel and the U.S. Samhadana is on Israel's most wanted list. Recently Resistance Committee members boasted of firing rockets into Israel, and Samhadana is accused of involvement in the October, 2003 attack on a U.S. diplomatic convoy in Gaza that killed three American security guards. Hamas' appointment brought quick condemnation from Jerusalem and Washington. U.S. State Department spokesman, Scott McCormick.

Mr. SCOTT MCCORMICK (Spokesman, U.S. State Department): This is just another window into the nature of this Hamas-led government, and underscores the importance of the international community maintaining unity and sending a strong message to them to change.

WESTERVELT: Israeli officials went further. Labor lawmaker Danny Yatom told Israel Army Radio today that all Hamas ministers are now potential targets. Nobody who deals with terror, Yatom said, can have immunity, even if he holds a ministerial portfolio in the Hamas government. Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev told NPR, Samhadana has been involved in every conceivable form of terrorist violence. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

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