Congress Agrees to Train and Equip Abbas' Security Forces

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - The U.S. Congress has cleared the way for millions of American taxpayer dollars to be spent on security forces loyal to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas -- despite Abbas' involvement in the new Fatah-Hamas unity government.

The U.S. and Israel support Abbas and his Fatah faction as "moderates" in the region, and they were backing him in his power struggle against Hamas until he joined forces with the terrorist organization. Now the U.S. Congress has agreed to beef up Abbas' security forces anyway.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Tuesday that because no lawmaker had blocked the money requested by the Bush administration two weeks ago, the administration is now free to move forward and spend the $59 million.

"A 15-day period lapsed after March 23rd, in which no senator or representative put a hold on the money and therefore we can proceed with that program," McCormack said.

According to McCormack, about $43 million will be used for "non-lethal training and equipment" for Abbas' presidential guard. Another $16 million will be used for upgrades to the Karni crossing, he said.

Karni - the main goods crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip and basically Gaza's lifeline - has been the site of numerous Palestinian terror attacks and attempted attacks.

According to one American diplomat here, "non-lethal training" includes instructions on how to run a border crossing and conduct inspections -- which is the task of Abbas' Presidential Guard.

Non-lethal training also includes tips on how to organize a "presidential guard," which is supposed to protect Abbas, said the diplomat who did not want to be named. It does not include any training with weapons, he said.

The U.S. is not going to conduct the training nor will that training be conducted on U.S. soil, the diplomat said. The trainees will be screened to make sure they are not connected to terror organizations. "We take the vetting very seriously," he said.

The remainder of the money will go toward making the Karni crossing more secure so that the Palestinians can export more goods, which will improve the economy in Gaza, the diplomat said.

The Bush administration originially requested $86 million in assistance for Abbas, but it downscaled the request after Abbas' Fatah faction joined a national unity government with Hamas two months ago.

Hamas, which openly calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, dominates the new government. P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has said the unity government's platform includes the right to continue "resistance" - a euphemism for terrorism.

Although the U.S. has refused to deal with Hamas members, it said it will maintain its ties with non-Hamas government ministers - people it's contacted before.

Israel has said it would continue its contacts with Abbas but not with any member of the Hamas government because the government does not meet the benchmarks set by the international community for lifting an economic boycott: recognize Israel, abandon terrorism, and abide by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Rice said earlier that the administration had reduced the amount of its monetary request because she could not fully account for how the money would be spent. Congress was concerned that the money could find its way into the hands of terrorists.

Reserve Maj.-Gen. Jacob Amidror, former commander of Israeli Army's National Defense College, said in an earlier interview that the U.S. was taking a big chance in boosting Abbas' Presidential Guard, given the chance that its increased capabilities could end up serving the purposes of Hamas.

Other critics have argued that Abbas is not moderate at all. They argue that he was former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's deputy for decades and that he has not fulfilled his pledge to both Israel and the U.S. to dismantle and disarm terrorist organizations.

Abbas is due to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday, Israeli officials said on Wednesday. Olmert and Abbas agreed to meet every two weeks during Rice's last visit to the region in March.

Olmert's office said at the time that the talks would focus only on humanitarian and security issues and would not be considered negotiations on final status or political issues.

Last week, unnamed senior Palestinian officials were quoted in the daily Ha'aretz as threatening to help Hamas if the meetings don't produce any tangible results.

"If they go on meeting without the release of prisoners or other gestures, we ourselves will supply Hamas with the weapons it wants," the sources were quoted as saying.

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