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profiles Tuesday, 4 December, 2001, 13:54 GMT
Who are Force 17?
A Palestinian policeman collects documents from Force-17 headquarters
Documents are taken from Force 17 headquarters after they were targeted by Israel
By Middle East analyst Fiona Symon

Force 17 is a group of about 3,500 men, responsible for protecting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and for providing security for visiting international delegations.

Mr Arafat regards them as some of his most trusted security personnel.

They are the best trained of the dozen or so overlapping security organisations operating under the Palestinian Authority's control.

Force 17 members wear military-style uniforms and are equipped with light weapons and armoured vehicles.

Legendary figure

After several months of physical and arms training, they are routinely stationed away from their home towns and isolated from their families to assure undivided loyalty to the Palestinian leader.

Yasser Arafat
Force 17 are tasked with protecting Yasser Arafat
The original force was founded in the mid-1970s in Lebanon by Ali Hassan Salameh - a legendary figure for Palestinians.

He was married to a Lebanese beauty queen who was crowned Miss Universe. She inspired a character in the John Le Carré novel The Little Drummer Girl.

A commando unit with unquestioned loyalty to Mr Arafat, the group is said to have taken its name from Salameh's Beirut telephone extension.

The Israelis assassinated Salameh in 1979, believing him to be responsible for the attack on their athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

Accusations

But the force he created survived and when Mr Arafat returned to Gaza in 1994, 300 Force 17 fighters accompanied him.

These veterans form the core of the militia, which is now led by Mahmoud Damara.

Soon after he took office earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began to criticise Force 17, saying its activities went beyond protection.

Mr Damara was accused of co-ordinating attacks against Israel - an accusation he denies.

But Mr Sharon has repeatedly held Force 17 - and by extension Mr Arafat - responsible for shootings of Jewish settlers and, indirectly, for bomb attacks in Israel claimed by militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Palestinian analysts say that while some renegade security personnel have been involved in attacks against Israel, this is a reflection of Mr Arafat's dwindling authority.

Those who carry out attacks on Israel are neither prepared to take orders from the Palestinian Authority, nor in need of its assistance, they say.

And they perceive Israel's targeting of Force 17 as an attempt to weaken or even dismantle the Palestinian Authority.

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03 Dec 01 | Middle East
03 Dec 01 | Middle East
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