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Palestinians to dismantle 'death squad'

Move to overhaul security services

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The Palestinian Authority said yesterday that it will disband a small security unit tainted by accusations of abuse, an initial step toward overhauling its bloated network of overlapping and competing security forces.

Palestinian reformers, as well as Israeli and US officials, have long demanded an overhaul of Palestinian security services but faced stiff resistance from Yasser Arafat, who used the security network to maintain his hold on power.

The stalled US-backed ''road map" peace plan also called for a restructuring of the forces but coupled that with a call for a crackdown on militant groups, a demand the Palestinians have opposed, saying it could spark a civil war.

Since Arafat's death Nov. 11, his successors have taken steps to restore confidence in a Palestinian leadership long accused of corruption, calling for elections to choose a new leader and promising to be more open and accountable.

As part of that effort, the Palestinian Preventive Security chief, Brigadier General Rashid Abu Shbak, said yesterday that he would abolish the Gaza Security and Protections unit, nicknamed the ''death squad" by Palestinians, following accusations that some members abused their powers and used intimidation to rule the streets of Gaza.

''We are facing a new phase, and we must say farewell to chaos and to all those who cause it in the Palestinian street," Shbak said in Gaza City. ''We must clear the air of past mistakes of the previous era."

The 70-person unit was formed more than a year ago to crack down on militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and to track and arrest high-profile criminals in Gaza.

Instead, some members of the unit were accused of turning into criminals themselves, confiscating land, smuggling weapons, and intimidating the general public with threats of violence.

Its members will be dispersed to other units in the security system, Shbak said.

Disbanding the unit was a relatively simple act. Merging and reforming the disparate security forces, whose rivalries have often erupted into violence, would be far more risky, pitting the nascent Palestinian leadership against angry security chiefs.

But demands have been increasing for such change, seen as a necessary step to instilling order in the Gaza Strip before Israel's planned pullout from the territory next year.

Shbak also announced plans to merge the ruling Fatah party's fragmented and decentralized armed militias, including the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis. The move was needed to make the militants more accountable and to end the gun chaos on Palestinian streets, he said.

''These groups must be brought under control, and there must be a central leadership that can be held responsible for their actions," Shbak said.

He said the committee would pursue ways to bring these armed groups under control without interfering with their ''principles of resistance," indicating Fatah had no intention of pushing them to end the 4-year-old armed uprising against Israel.

Meanwhile, in the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, about 1,000 Palestinians -- including scores of armed, masked militants affiliated with Fatah -- demonstrated for the continuation of the uprising.

The demonstrators also declared their support for Mahmoud Abbas, the new head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Fatah's candidate in the Jan. 9 presidential elections.

Abbas, 69, is a pragmatist who has spoken out against the uprising and is believed to be the candidate favored by Israel and the United States.

The rally occurred a day after a jailed Palestinian uprising leader, Marwan Barghouti, dropped his plans to run in the elections and endorsed Abbas.

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