Abbas, Hamas build forces despite unity talks
JERUSALEM, Nov 22 (Reuters) - The new concrete barriers being placed on the Palestinian side of Gaza's main commercial crossing are a clear sign of a US-backed plan to assert President Mahmoud Abbas's control in the Hamas stronghold.
Western officials close to the project said US efforts to bolster Abbas and his presidential guard would proceed regardless of a possible deal between Abbas's Fatah movement and Hamas Islamists on forming a unity government.
Hamas is likewise building up its own forces and seeking control of the security establishment, raising the prospects of an eventual showdown between the rival forces.
Washington wants to ensure Abbas emerges on top.
''Working with the presidential guard will not change even if there is a new government,'' said one Western source with close links to the US team.
The new barriers at the Karni crossing precede deployment next month of the presidential guard to replace forces under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry, currently held by Hamas.
''The Americans want to build up Abbas militarily and politically to eventually be able to constrain Hamas,'' said one senior Israeli official.
Fatah and Hamas see agreement on a unity government as a way to end a Western aid embargo aimed at forcing Hamas to recognise Israel and renounce violence. Abbas favours talks with Israel.
Many fear future confrontation even if there is a deal now.
''It's like trying to cure a cancer patient with an aspirin,'' said Palestinian analyst Ali Jarbawi of plans for a unity government. ''You defer it today and it will erupt tomorrow.'' HAMAS BUILDS FORCE Hamas has expanded its ''Executive Force'' and wants control of the Interior Ministry and security forces in any coalition.
''They (Hamas) want to demonstrate that they still have the teeth. It's a kind of deterrence,'' said Zakaria al-Qaq, a security expert at al-Quds University.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the aim of the Executive Force, now 6,000 strong, was only to improve security in Gaza.
A senior aide to Abbas, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said the presidential guard, was a long established institution unlike the Executive Force, which he described as ''a pure Hamas force''.
Western diplomats said the United States had so far raised million of the 20 million dollars it hopes to get from donors for expanding Abbas's guard and increasing security at Karni.
US congressional restrictions have forced the Americans to turn to European and Arab states to provide the bulk of money and equipment for the plan. But some donors are uneasy over aiding a project they fear could feed the power struggle.
While initially wary of U.S. plans to strengthen Abbas's guard, Israel sees Hamas's force as a growing threat because of Iranian backing for the group, Israeli officials said.
Israel is considering letting about 1,000 members of the so-called Badr Brigade, a Fatah-dominated force based in Jordan, into Palestinian territories to reinforce Abbas's guard.
Aides to Lieutenant-General Keith W. Dayton, the US security coordinator between Israel and the Palestinians, said the 5 million dollars committed so far will be used to buy vehicles and to pay for some infrastructure improvements at Karni.
US officials describe the Karni programme as humanitarian, saying that improving security there will mean the crossing can open for more of the time -- Israel often shuts it.
Washington envisions the guard eventually taking control of all border crossings, including those in the West Bank. That could boost Abbas politically as trade revenues filter through.
US plans call for expanding the force initially to around 4,700 members, up from 3,500 today. But Palestinian officials estimated the force could eventually grow to 10,000 members. The US programme includes funds for training the force.
In a sign of Washington's commitment, the White House has asked Dayton to stay in the region for another year.
But some question US wisdom in favouring the force.
''It is a short-term tactic in the absence of a long-term strategy,'' said Palestinian security consultant Yaser Dajani.
REUTERS LL VC1928