Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided on Tuesday to appoint a security officer who had been accused by Israel of involvement in terrorist attacks as overall commander of his Force 17 "presidential guard" in the West Bank.
The decision to appoint Col. Mahmoud Damra, also known as Abu Awad, comes only days after Israel agreed to provide weapons and ammunition to Force 17 following increased threats on Abbas's life.
PA officials told The Jerusalem Post that Abbas approved the appointment of Damra in a presidential decree issued just before he left Ramallah for Tunis. They confirmed that Damra was on Israel's list of wanted terrorists, but claimed that the charges were "baseless."
"Damra is a senior Palestinian officer who was very close to the late Yasser Arafat," said one official. "He did have a role in the revolution and in the struggle against Israel, like most Palestinians. But today he is committed to the peace process and he supports President Abbas."
Damra was one of several fugitives who sought shelter in Arafat's Mukata compound in Ramallah in 2002 after Israel accused him of masterminding terrorist attacks. Damra was then commander of the Ramallah branch of Force 17 and was in charge of protecting Arafat and his top aides.
Israeli security officials said then that, since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000, Damra had led a terrorist cell in the Ramallah area that carried out deadly attacks, including shooting at vehicles, attacking communities and IDF positions and planting bombs.
In March 2004, The Daily Telegraph quoted Israeli defense officials as saying that Damra was "a commander of terrorist actions, even suicide actions."
Damra's deputy, Abu Fadih, was killed during a gun battle with soldiers in the center of Ramallah in March 2002. The IDF said then that Abu Fadih headed a Fatah cell responsible for the deaths of at least 15 Israelis.
The gunmen commanded by Damra included members of Force 17 and Abbas's Fatah party. According to the officials, Damra personally issued orders to them to carry out attacks and was in charge of supplying them with weapons and money.
A statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office in 2001 announced the arrest of three members of Force 17 who were allegedly involved in the killing of Binyamin Ze'ev Kahane and his wife Talia in December 2000.
According to the statement, Damra was responsible for arming and instructing the three men, who were identified as Talal Ghassan, 37, a senior Force 17 member in Ramallah, Marzouk Abu Naim, 43, and Na'man Nofel.
The three were planning on carrying out additional attacks on soldiers and civilians, especially on the Ramallah-area bypass roads, on the Allon road and in Jerusalem, the statement said.
Abu Naim led his interrogators to two bombs which the cell had been planning to use.
Israeli security officials also attribute to Damra's men a shooting attack near Neveh Tzuf in November 2000 in which two soldiers and a civilian were killed, a shooting attack at the Tapuah junction in November 2001 in which one civilian was killed, and a shooting attack on Route 443 near Givat Ze'ev in December 2001 in which a civilian was killed.