Dayton recommends expanding PA forces to strengthen Abbas

The US security coordinator in the Palestinian territories wants five new Palestinian battalions deployed across the West Bank in an effort to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, according to a report published Thursday.The proposal by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton would require Israeli approval for arms and equipment to be transferred to the new force, the Haaretz daily cited political officials in Jerusalem as saying.

The plan, which is in the process of being fleshed out, is likely to call for the phased formation of the force, Haaretz reported. It did not say how many troops would be in each battalion or report Israeli or Palestinian comment on the proposal.

Spokesmen for Dayton and the Palestinian government could not immediately be reached for comment.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, said Israel was “interested in seeing the strengthening of the Palestinian government, the strengthening of its security apparatus, to enable it to more effectively fight terrorism and extremism”. He did not elaborate.

In the past, Israel has balked at authorising the flow of arms and military equipment to the Palestinians, fearing it would fall into the hands of Hamas. Since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, Israel has been working to bolster Abbas’ West Bank-based government and cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces has improved.

Last week, the US Congress authorised the transfer of $80 million to Dayton’s operation, in a bid to reinforce Abbas against Hamas, which routed his Fateh security forces in the Gaza takeover.

Abbas’ expulsion of Hamas from government after the Gaza takeover has reinvigorated international efforts to revive long-stalled Mideast peacemaking.

Past talks have broken down over questions of final borders, how Jerusalem will be shared, and whether Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that accompanied Israel’s creation would be allowed to return to their homes in Israel, along with millions of descendants.

Meanwhile, the deaths of three young Palestinian cousins in an Israeli attack on rocket launchers in Gaza set back efforts to achieve progress ahead of a US-sponsored peace conference later this year.

The Israeli army said it spotted figures handling rocket launchers Wednesday afternoon and attacked them from the ground, killing the three children.

Dr Moaiya Hassanain of the Palestinian health ministry said 10-year-old Mahmoud Ghazal and his 12-year-old cousin Yehiya Ghazal were killed, and their 10-year-old cousin Sara Ghazal was critically injured. She later died in the hospital, officials said.

“We heard a blast, followed by children screaming,” said another relative, Wasfi Ghazal, blaming both sides. “We are victims of the [Israeli] occupation and victims of the misconduct of fighters who have randomly chosen our area to target Israel,” he said.

In a statement, the Israeli military said it “wishes to express sorrow” for the “use of teenagers in terror attacks”. In the past the military has accused fighters of sending children to pick up their rocket launchers, but it did not explicitly say the three dead children in Wednesday’s incident were directly involved.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the killing of the children, predicting violence would breed more violence.

“This will add to the complexities and feed the fire,” Erekat said.

Taher Nunu, a spokesman for Gaza’s Hamas rulers, said the attack on the heels of the Olmert-Abbas meeting “reaffirms Israel’s aggressive intentions, and its disinterest in reaching an understanding with the Palestinian side.” He called on Abbas to stop meeting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Also yesterday, an Israeli military spokesman said that soldiers have arrested a teenage boy strapped with two bombs that he allegedly planned to detonate in their midst in the northern Gaza Strip.

Israeli forces operating inside the Palestinian territory overnight Tuesday to Wednesday were tipped off about a potential attack when they spotted the youth approaching them, the spokesman said.

“He was about 15 years old and had an explosive belt containing two bombs, which he apparently intended to use in a suicide bombing against them. Consequently, he was taken for questioning by security forces,” he said. The Israeli military accuse armed groups of making frequent use of children and youths to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers.

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