GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The Palestinian Authority (search) said Saturday it will disband a small security unit tainted by accusations of abuse, an initial step toward reforming its bloated network of overlapping and competing security forces.
Palestinian reformers, as well as Israeli and U.S. officials, have long demanded a major overhaul of the Palestinian security services but faced stiff resistance from Yasser Arafat (search), who used the bloated security network to maintain his hold on power.
The stalled U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan also called for a restructuring of the forces but coupled that with a call for a crackdown on militant groups, a demand the Palestinians have opposed, saying it could spark a civil war.
Since Arafat's death Nov. 11, his successors have taken steps to restore confidence in a Palestinian leadership long accused of corruption, calling for elections to choose a new leader and promising to be more open and accountable.
As part of that effort, Palestinian Preventive Security chief Brig. Gen. Rashid Abu Shbak said Saturday he would abolish the Gaza Security and Protections unit (search) — nicknamed the "death squad" by Palestinians — in the wake of accusations that some members abused their powers and used intimidation to rule the streets of Gaza.
"We are facing a new phase and we must say farewell to chaos and to all those who cause it in the Palestinian street," Shbak said in Gaza City. "We must clear the air of past mistakes of the previous era."
The 70-person unit was formed more than a year ago to crack down on militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and to track and arrest high-profile criminals in Gaza.
Instead, some members of the unit were accused of turning into criminals themselves, confiscating land, smuggling weapons and intimidating the general public with threats of violence.
The unit's members will be dispersed to other units in the security system, Shbak said.
Disbanding the unit was a relatively simple act. Merging and reforming the disparate security forces, whose rivalries have often erupted into violence, would be far more risky, pitting the nascent Palestinian leadership against angry security chiefs.
But demands have been increasing for such reforms, seen as a necessary step to instilling order in the Gaza Strip before Israel's planned pullout from the chaotic territory next year.
Shbak also announced plans to merge the ruling Fatah party's fragmented and decentralized armed militias, including the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a militant group responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis. The move was needed to make the militants more accountable and to end the gun chaos on Palestinian streets, he said.
"These groups must be brought under control and there must be a central leadership that can be held responsible for their actions," Shbak said.
He said the committee would pursue ways to bring these armed groups under control without interfering with their "principles of resistance," indicating Fatah had no intention of pushing them to end the 4-year-old armed uprising against Israel.
Meanwhile, in the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, about 1,000 Palestinians — including scores of armed, masked militants affiliated with Fatah — demonstrated for the continuation of the uprising.
The demonstrators also declared their support for Mahmoud Abbas, the new head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Fatah's candidate in Jan. 9 presidential elections.
Abbas, 69, is a pragmatist who has spoken out against the uprising and is believed to be the candidate favored by Israel and the United States.
The rally came a day after jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, 45, dropped his plans to run in the elections and endorsed Abbas.
Barghouti is the leader of the Fatah movement's young guard, which has been agitating for reform and a chance to capture leadership positions currently monopolized by older politicians.
Fatah has selected Abbas as its candidate and, in an effort to persuade Barghouti to drop his planned challenge, announced Friday it would hold long-delayed party elections in August, the first poll to fill top party posts in 16 years.
"A whole generation within Fatah was marginalized, and now it will be able to be represented," said Mohammed Hourani, a young Fatah leader.
The announced elections, as well as fears that Barghouti's candidacy would split the Fatah vote and allow another candidate to win the presidential election, helped push Barghouti out of the race.
Barghouti is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison after being convicted of murder in attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.
Fatah officials on Saturday called on the Palestinian leadership to hold parliamentary elections May 15, the anniversary of the day Israel declared its independence in 1948, considered a day of tragedy by the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Abbas, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and interim Palestinian Authority President Rauhi Fattouh arrived in Cairo for a scheduled Sunday meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The discussions will focus on the Jan. 9 Palestinian elections and the new power-sharing formula in the Palestinian territories. Egypt also is trying to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and assist preparations for Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
Also Saturday, a 4-year-old girl was in serious condition after being shot in the mouth by Israeli soldiers as she stood in front of her home, witnesses and medical officials said. The Israeli army said it found no evidence of the shooting and received no reports on it from the Palestinian authorities.
Israeli troops shot and seriously wounded a 15-year-old boy during stone-throwing clash in a village near Nablus, doctors and neighbors said. The army said troops shot a Palestinian who threw a firebomb at them.