By Adam Entous
RAMALLAH, West Bank, June 20 (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pushing through an overhaul of his security forces by decree, retiring old-guard commanders and giving broad law enforcement powers to a secretive special unit.
Several thousand top officers who rose through the ranks under the iconic late guerrilla leader Yasser Arafat have so far given up command with Abbas offering pre-retirement promotions and pensions equal to their full wages, according to interviews and presidential orders seen by Reuters.
The U.S.-backed overhaul, which envisages shedding about 30,000 security jobs and building a more streamlined gendarmerie as part of Washington’s drive for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, has picked up pace in recent months, following Abbas’s loss of the Gaza Strip to Hamas Islamists a year ago.
But some of the changes have stoked tensions between Abbas’s prime minister, Western-backed economist Salam Fayyad, and the old guard of Abbas’s Fatah faction, a group accustomed to power that cut its teeth in decades of struggle with Israel.
While many Arafat-era security chiefs took early retirement willingly, some veteran commanders, like Abu Ali Turki, say the golden parachute was little consolation: "They are trying to throw us out," Turki, who is in his early 50s, lamented. An Interior Ministry official denied commanders were being pushed out against their will: "It was an offer. Some took it and others didn’t," the official said. "There were many officers and commanders doing nothing for the past three years.
"They were getting paid while they were at home."
Western officials note that many of the changes have been carried out with little public accountability.
One decree was written to lure commanders into retirement by offering full salaries to those over 45 with 15 years service.
Another gave the plain-clothes Preventive Security service, which is reviled as a partisan enemy by Hamas, law enforcement powers to thwart threats to Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.
With the Hamas-led parliament paralysed — by Israel’s jailing of many members and the factional war over Gaza — Abbas and his government have issued or plan to issue dozens of other orders covering everything from the role of the police, capital markets and religious sharia courts, internal documents show.
Advocates say the security changes were meant to keep Hamas in check in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and bolster chances of a statehood deal, which Israel says will only be implemented once Palestinians crack down on militants who attack Israelis.
But some of the changes have raised concerns from constitutional experts, human rights groups and Western officials, who say abuses by forces in both the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip are on the rise.
In a recent meeting with Abbas, the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights cited "a tendency towards militarisation in both areas, as if a state of lawlessness had shifted to a sort of a security state, a police state".
Nathan Brown, a George Washington University professor who had advised the Palestinians on drafting a constitution, compared Fayyad’s government to an international trusteeship, citing a lack of accountability to an elected parliament.
"Democratic structures have simply broken down," Brown said. "Both governments — the one in Ramallah and the one in Gaza — have some claim to democratic origins, but neither is operating in a recognisably democratic manner now."
Some Western officials have voiced particular concerns about Abbas’s Preventive Security order, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters. It declared the force’s own detention centres are legal, mandates that its activities remain strictly "confidential" and gave the force broad law enforcement powers.
The head of the European Union training programme for Abbas’s ordinary civil police, Colin Smith, said any security sector reforms should give the civil police the lead.
"The civil police should do the arrests. That’s transparent and accountable and that’s the system that operates in most democratic states in the world," Smith said.
An estimated 4,000 commanders were retired earlier this year under Abbas’s decree, Palestinian and Western officials said.
Jibril al-Rajoub, a former national security adviser and West Bank Preventive Security chief, said more commanders should go and Abbas should replace them without U.S. interference.
Western officials estimated Fayyad, a technocrat who is not a Fatah member, has so far reduced the number of security men on the Authority’s payroll to about 60,000 from 83,000, closing in on a U.S.-backed goal of 50,000.
For Fayyad, who lacks a local power base of his own, the priority has been finding a way to make changes without sparking a backlash from the old guard, which long used security jobs as a form of clan patronage system, Western officials said.
Fayyad’s retirement scheme is not cheap, however — those removed from the payroll are being added to the pension rolls, a factor that may reduce any sense of resentment among some.
"They made a great offer," said 55-year-old Abu Fadi, a Preventive Security veteran who retired after working for Fatah for decades, 17 years of which he spent in an Israeli jail.
But others feel slighted. Hilal Wahid, recently retired from the General Intelligence service, said the overhaul was meant to rid the security forces of "those loyal to their faction".
"It is a political game," the 46-year-old said, pointing to the recruitment and promotion of younger men unlikely to have taken part in Fatah-led Palestinian uprisings against Israel.
Many, however, are resigned to the changes.
Turki was a top commander in Force 17 before Fayyad phased out the unit, which protected Arafat but was accused in Israel and Washington of taking part in violence against Israel.
"A new chapter has just started," he said. "Our time has ended." (Additional reporting by Haitham Tamimi in Hebron and Wael al-Ahmed in Jenin; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)