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Sunday, 16 June, 2002, 02:31 GMT 03:31 UK
Gaza defiant amid the rubble
Little remains of Yasser Arafat's base in Gaza
Arafat's office have been gutted in Israeli offensives
Caroline Hawley

Israeli airforce planes roar overhead as Brigadier Usama el-Ali the head of Gaza's "regional security committee" surveys the destruction which previous sorties have wrought on the ground.

"Arafat City," the main Palestinian police compound in Gaza City, lies in ruins after extensive Israeli aerial bombardments in 2001 and early 2002.

Blue uniforms poke out of the rubble of the building which used to house the women's police department with its adjoining kindergarten.

Children live in the shadow of Gaza's wreckage
Many are suffering from the conflict
Flattened too are the offices of the tourist police and the police band, as well as a forensic laboratory put in by the European Union.

A few sniffer dogs, trained to detect drugs and explosives, bark furiously at the edge of what one of the generals calls "a ghost city." Most of the dogs died in the bombing raids.

And most of the Palestinian police in Gaza now sleep in tents, rented buildings and football grounds.

'Impossible task'

Usama el-Ali describes American and Israeli pressure to "reform" the Palestinian security forces to prevent further suicide bombings as "a bad joke" in the current circumstances.

"The Israelis attack our security forces at the very same time as they and the Americans ask us to exert control," he shouts.

Yasser Arafat
Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat

"I want the world to tell me with whom and with what? Our police are now hiding under the trees."

Back in his modest office in Gaza City, Brigadier el-Ali keeps a well-thumbed copy of the Oslo peace agreement on his desk.

But the man appointed to co-ordinate security matters with the Israeli army under the terms of the deal can't remember when he last met an Israeli officer.

Now, as Yasser Arafat prepares to restructure and streamline his multiple security forces - under intense American and Israeli pressure - Brigadier el-Ali is deeply sceptical.

"As long as the occupation is there, nothing will go right."

'Change is necessary'

After Israel's recent military offensives in the West Bank, most Palestinians believe changes in the security forces are necessary.

Not, however, because the police failed to prevent attacks on Israelis but because they failed to prevent Israeli attacks on them.

They also complain of corruption in the security apparatus.

One man with intimate knowledge of the workings of the Palestinian security forces is Muhammad Dahlan, the former chief of security in Gaza who's just resigned his post.

"There's no doubt that mistakes have been made, violations have occurred," he says.

We won't be stooges for the Israelis

Colonel Hamdi el-Rifi
"There hasn't been a clear demarcation of responsibilities. I don't think we should cast blame but I do think we need change."

But the changes being demanded by Israel and the Americans are dramatically different from those that most Palestinians would like to see.

"The Americans want a very strong security force to crack down on Islamists and protect the security of Israel and put an end to suicide attacks," says Mazen Shakoura head of the Gaza office of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens Rights.

"But I don't think the Americans have ever been interested in human rights in the areas under Palestinian jurisdiction.

Now, many Palestinians fear more "political" arrests may be to come.

But few, in the current climate, believe that members of militant groups opposed to the peace process should be under lock and key when they say that an entire government opposed to peace is in power in Israel.

Gaza Central Prison, a building that dates back to British colonial times, used to use house political prisoners. No longer.

'We need peace'

The head of the Palestinian prison service, Colonel Hamdi el-Rifi, doesn't want political prisoners in jails which he worries could be attacked by the Israelis.

We're caught between the fire of Israel and the fire of our own people

Palestinian Riot Police officer

"We won't be stooges for the Israelis," says the former fighter who spent 13 years in Israeli jails after an attempted sea-borne attack in the 1970s.

"We do need peace and good relations with them, but Israel should first withdraw from the land it occupied in 1967, and then we'll do our best to protect them."

But unless and until political progress is made, members of Palestinian security forces will find themselves in a continuing bind however the security apparatus is structured.

"We're caught between the fire of Israel and the fire of our own people," said a riot police commander, training his force in a yard near a public football stadium because its base was destroyed.

"The Israelis knew what they were doing when they attacked us. They wanted chaos and they got it."

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See also:

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