Arafat's navy without a sea

Existence of the Palestinian Naval Police represents the struggle over PA security forces

This landlocked city may seem an unlikely place to situate a naval base, but for Palestinians without a state perhaps it is fitting to have a navy without a sea.

Only the small anchors painted in black on the stucco barracks of the Palestinian Naval Police recall the ocean. Nearby are parched Judean desert hills. Today Jericho is surrounded on all sides by the Israeli army.

The Naval Police also have bases in landlocked Hebron, Nablus, and Bethlehem, in addition to forces in Gaza, where its small vessels have been destroyed and its ranks hard hit during the four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

"Our relation with the sea is very weak because the Israelis control the sea and we don't have the capacity to go into the business of the sea," says Lt. Col. Hatim Hasan, the Jericho base commander.

The question of why the Palestinian navy is in Jericho and its relations with the other 10 branches comprising the maze of often competing Palestinian security forces is no laughing matter. It cuts to the heart of whether Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is going beyond declarations and actually streamlining the 45,000-strong security forces into three branches, as he decreed in July, and whether he is willing to relinquish power over them to Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie.

A visit to the Naval Police base and the assessments of analysts points toward the conclusion that the answer to both questions is, at least for now, no.

Inside Colonel Hasan's office, overseen by a framed poster of a smiling Mr. Arafat, things are hardly on a war footing. An officer in khaki camouflage fatigues offers coffee. No one is carrying a weapon. Back in the old days of the PLO, the Naval Police, founded in 1968 in Latakia, Syria, specialized in training for seaborne attacks on Israeli targets. Its last such effort was in 1985, when frogmen on their way to carry out an attack were intercepted by the Israeli navy.

What was once envisioned as the fledgling navy for an independent state is now a special forces police unit that acts - or refrains from acting - according to Arafat's whim.

"The doctrine of the Naval Police is to show all loyalty to the decisions of the president" says Hasan. Its policing role and loyalty to Arafat explain why the navy has bases in the West Bank, set up by presidential order in 1995, analysts say.

All told, there are 1,500 men in the Naval Police, making it one of the smaller forces among the security branches at Arafat's disposal. "Immediately when the situation gets foggy, the strategic ally of the president is always the Naval Police," says Hassan.

In Gaza after the 1993 Oslo Agreement, the Naval Police had a handful of small vessels ostensibly to patrol against smuggling in the shadow of the Israeli navy, but the force's main job was to combat challenges to Arafat's rule. "We acted against the Fatah Hawks, we had to have an iron fist, we had clashes against Hamas as well," says Hassan.

Lt. Akram Farid adds proudly: "With one section of 30 to 50 men we can restore order anywhere."

That may have been true before the intifada, but some of the most acute disorder today is among the security branches themselves, where personal rivalries among the chiefs predominate.

Adding to the sense of chaos is that most of the 11 forces are under separate commands - and commanders - in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Calling for reform of the security forces, the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights, wrote in a report issued two weeks ago that "there is a need for clear regulation to demarcate between the competencies of each branch of the security services."

The head of the Naval Police, Maj. Gen. Juma Ghali, resigned in July after Yasser Arafat appointed his own nephew, Musa Arafat, the director of Military Intelligence, to the post of chief of the Palestinian National Security Force.

But Hassan says that because of "historic sensitivities" the Naval Police will never take orders from Musa Arafat. "The loyalty of the Naval Police to Musa Arafat is a big dream that cannot be achieved," he says. "If I am transferred to Military Intelligence, OK, I will take his orders, but as Naval Police there is no way I will do so and this is a fact well known to the president."

Aware of the antipathy of some of the forces toward Musa, Yasser Arafat promoted Maj. Gen. Abdul Razaq al-Majaide to the post of chief of the Palestinian National Security Force in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And he limited Musa Arafat's authority to Gaza. But that perhaps cosmetic change was not enough to prompt General Ghali to reconsider his resignation.

"We have complexities among the security apparatuses that the president is unable to solve in spite of the fact that he created these complexities," explains Hassan.

The multiplicity of forces and rivalries are a deliberate policy, in the view of Shalom Harari, a former adviser on Palestinians to the Israeli defense ministry. "It's divide and rule. Arafat wants every commander to be subordinate to him directly and reporting to him. "

In practice, Arafat's decree unifying the security forces will have no impact on the Naval Police, Hassan says. "Al-Majaide will still have to call the president if he needs something from the Naval Police," he says.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, says it would be a mistake to expect Arafat to give up his direct control of the security forces. "To give up that card means he is left completely naked," he says. "Arafat will ask 'what's in it for me?' "

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