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Weak Palestinian forces may hurt Gaza pullout - report

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By Megan Goldin

JERUSALEM, July 26 (Reuters) - Palestinian security forces are in such disarray that they may not be able to fill a vacuum left by Israel after it withdraws from the occupied Gaza Strip this year, an independent report released on Tuesday found.

The survey by a Washington-based think tank advising U.S. security coordinator Lt.-Gen. William Ward said Palestinian security services were over-staffed, poorly armed and undermined by rivalry between security chiefs as well as by corruption.

While admitting some security personnel had been mired in corruption, the Palestinian Authority said the findings of the Strategic Assessments Initiative did not sufficiently take into account recent reforms under President Mahmoud Abbas.

The report also criticised Israel for undermining the effectiveness of the Palestinian security services through military operations during a nearly five-year-old Palestinian uprising as well as failing to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal.

The think tank's conclusions were released ahead of testimony to a U.S. congressional committee later on Tuesday by Ward, assigned by Washington to help the Palestinian Authority overhaul its security forces.

It said Palestinian security forces "lacked the capacity and capability to fulfil core functions" and might have trouble taking control when Israel pulls its troops and 9,000 settlers out of Gaza and the northern West Bank starting mid-August.

"Lack of clarity in relation to the future of settlement assets, land allocation and property rights may present a threat to stability," the report said.

The Gaza withdrawal, Israel's first removal of settlements from occupied land Palestinians want for a state, is seen as a test of the Palestinians' ability to assert control before any future peace talks.

'TIME AND EFFORT'

The Palestinian Authority's top security official responded with an appeal for patience, saying time was needed to repair the damage of Israeli raids and mismanagement by the old guard.

"In the recent period there has been a process of restructuring most forces. Many senior officers and commanders were sent into retirement," said a spokesman for Interior Minister Nasser Youssef.

"Maybe it does not yet achieve the goal of correcting the security services but it constituted a number of steps in the right direction," he said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials said they would press ahead with meetings to coordinate the withdrawal and prevent attacks by militants or looting of property left by settlers.

Brig-Gen. Jamal Kayed, commander of Palestinian forces in south Gaza, said about 7,000 police and paramilitary troops would be deployed to secure evacuated settlements.

"We are ready regardless of whether they coordinate with us or not. We are taking our lands back," he told Reuters. Kayed said talks were under way to set up a joint coordination office with Israel during the withdrawal.

Jarat Chopra, the head of the Strategic Assessments Initiative group, said coordination was the best way of ensuring a smooth transfer of power during the pullout.

"The transfer of maximum information between these two is going to prevent a lot of guessing, which is enormously dangerous," Chopra said.

The report said that while coordination might reduce the likelihood of militant attacks, it was doubtful that Palestinian security forces could exert full control, especially in southern Gaza where militants control areas near Jewish settlements.

Israel has said the withdrawal will not take place under fire and that troops could seize Palestinian areas near settlements if militants launch rocket strikes or other attacks.

Calling for urgent international assistance to help the Palestinian Authority implement reforms, the report said a U.S.-backed "road map" to peace that charts the course towards a Palestinian state may not succeed without comprehensive reforms.

Abbas put a priority on reforming the oft-competing security forces since succeeding the late Yasser Arafat in January. Critics accused Arafat of cultivating divisions within them.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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