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(photo credit: AP)
On the eve of the donors conference in Paris, which is expected to discuss ways of strengthening the Palestinian Authority, PA officials admitted Thursday that they still have a long way to go in reforming their security forces - a key condition set by the international community for funding the government of Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.
Meanwhile, PA Civil Police commander Gen. Kamal al-Sheikh revealed that more than 600 Fatah-affiliated policemen helped Hamas take control of the Gaza Strip last June.
"Out of 13,000 policemen in the Gaza Strip, only 612 participated in the Hamas coup against the Palestinian Authority," Sheikh said during a tour of Bethlehem.
Downplaying the significance of the move, he noted that this constituted only an estimated 4.5 percent of the entire police force.
This is the first time that a senior PA security official has spoken about the involvement of Fatah-affiliated policemen in the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. Sheikh did not say what kind of role the rebellious policemen played during the coup, but pointed out that the PA leadership had dismissed them and was no longer paying them.
The PA, which is hoping to raise $5.6 billion over the next three years at Monday's donors conference, still hasn't made enough progress in imposing law and order in the West Bank, the PA officials conceded.
They told The Jerusalem Post that despite the lack of progress, they expected the 90 countries that were scheduled to participate in the conference to approve the PA's request.
According to the officials, the PA's US-backed security plan, which was launched in the last few weeks in Nablus and Tulkarm, had failed to achieve most of its goals, largely due to the incompetence of the PA security forces.
They also held Israel partially responsible for the failure, citing security checkpoints and travel restrictions as main reasons.
"The security operation has not been a big success," one official said. "We arrested many wanted criminals and members of the Islamic Hizb al-Tahrir party, but we weren't able to lay our hands on many weapons."
Another official said the security operation did not target militiamen belonging to Fatah's armed groups. "These gunmen are continuing to operate freely in the refugee camps near Nablus and Tulkarm," he told the Post. "We arrested citizens who stole olive oil three years ago or fired into the air during weddings two years ago."
In addition, the PA's efforts to reform the Fatah-controlled security forces in the West Bank continued to face major obstacles, the official said, citing a lack of discipline among the ranks of the Palestinian policemen.
"We still have many officers who are involved in various crimes and corruption," he said. "We are still far from talking about real reforms in the security establishment. In the coming days we will launch a similar security operation in Bethlehem. But the real test will be in Hebron and Jenin, as well as in the refugee camps, where Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah militiamen call the shots."
The PA has also failed to make good on its pledge to cut by half the number of policemen serving in the various branches of its security forces, a number estimated at over 70,000. The PA is reluctant to fire large numbers of policemen for fear of driving them into the open arms of Hamas and other radical groups.
Fayad, who does not have control over the security forces, said Thursday he would ask donors at the December 17 conference to provide about $5.6b. in aid over three years to strengthen the PA economy. The aid will be used for budgetary support and development.
More than 70% of this sum, or $3.9b., is needed to cover operational expenses, including the salaries of more than 150,000 civil and security employees, Fayad told reporters in Ramallah.
"Substantial financial assistance is needed in order to ensure the continued operation of the PA," he said. "There is a great need."
Fayad said the government could not afford to absorb the large number of Palestinians entering the work force. "We will not be able to continue to function without this budgetary support," he said.
The PA, Fayad said, faced a budget deficit of $1.4b. next year. However, he expressed hope that the political situation would improve and Israel would ease travel restrictions in the West Bank, which would allow more and improved economic activity.
"For this improvement to be sustainable, it is vital that Israel remove movement restrictions on Palestinians, particularly its siege of Gaza, which has severely damaged the Palestinian economy and made life in the Gaza Strip unbearable," he said. "External assistance cannot and should not be an alternative to removal of these restrictions."
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