U.S. Offers $20 Million to Keep Abbas Safe, Upgrade Gaza Crossing

The United States has proposed a $20 million plan to boost Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' personal security force and upgrade the main cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel, American officials said Thursday.

The plan is being worked out by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator in the West Bank and Gaza, and was discussed during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's meeting with Abbas on Wednesday, the officials said.

The plan is part of a larger U.S. effort to bolster Abbas, a political moderate who is in a power struggle with the Islamic Hamas group.

Hamas defeated Abbas' Fatah Party in legislative elections this year and formed a government. Some branches of the security forces are under the control of the interior minister from Hamas, while others are under Abbas' control.

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The U.S. plan would provide funding and training to Abbas' presidential guard, which is considered the best-trained and most reliable of the security services. The U.S. and Israel refuse to deal with Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group.

An American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of internal policy, said the main aim of the program is to upgrade Palestinian security efforts at the Karni cargo crossing.

Karni is Gaza's economic lifeline, and has been repeatedly shut down by Israel over the past year because of security alerts, causing shortages and hardship in the area.

The American plan would improve checking and scanning technology to allow a speedier and more efficient crossing point. The Americans hope to implement the plan by November, in time for the harvest and export of products from Gaza, which include tomatoes and olives.

The U.S. hopes the enhanced presidential guards will staff Karni and restore Israeli trust in Palestinian security checks at the crossing. The guards are already deployed at Gaza's Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border.

But the move is also seen as a means to strengthen the beleaguered Abbas in his showdown with the Hamas-controlled government.

Hamas criticized Rice's efforts. "The agenda which Condoleezza Rice brought on her visit to the region is carrying the roots of division for Palestinian unity and the clear target to remove the government, and the talks about strengthening the presidency as an institution to confront Hamas," it said in a statement Thursday.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Thursday that he supports the opening of Karni to improve humanitarian conditions in Gaza.

"I plan to help implement the Dayton plan in building the Palestinian crossing adjacent to Israel's Karni crossing," Peretz said after meeting Rice. "I certainly see strengthening Abu Mazen as part of the process as part of creating the possibility to renew dialogue with the Palestinians."

Because of congressional restrictions, the U.S. is barred from financing the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority, so Dayton has reached out to international donors to fund the Karni project.

If Abbas' presidential guard is responsible for the security of the Karni crossing, U.S. funds could be allocated to this end, the official said. He also said this could attract potential European donors to contribute to the effort.

The American official said the plan would still require a substantial congressional appropriation of funds.