JERUSALEM – The U.S. security coordinator in the Palestinian territories wants five new Palestinian battalions deployed across the West Bank in an effort to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, according to a published report Thursday.
The proposal by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton would require Israeli approval for arms and equipment to be transferred to the new force, the Haaretz daily cited political officials in Jerusalem as saying.
The plan, which is in the process of being fleshed out, is likely to call for the phased formation of the force, Haaretz reported. It did not say how many troops would be in each battalion or report Israeli or Palestinian comment on the proposal.
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Spokesmen for Dayton and the Palestinian government could not immediately be reached for comment.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel was "interested in seeing the strengthening of the Palestinian government, the strengthening of its security apparatus, to enable it to more effectively fight terrorism and extremism." He did not elaborate.
In the past, Israel has balked at authorizing the flow of arms and military equipment to the Palestinians, fearing it would fall into the hands of Islamic Hamas militants. Since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, Israel has been working to bolster Abbas' moderate West Bank-based government and cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces has improved.
Last week, Congress authorized the transfer of $80 million to Dayton's operation, in a bid to reinforce Abbas against Hamas, which routed his Fatah security forces in the Gaza takeover.
Abbas' expulsion of Hamas from government after the Gaza takeover has reinvigorated international efforts to revive long-stalled Mideast peacemaking.
Past talks have broken down over questions of final borders; how Jerusalem will be shared; and whether Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war that accompanied Israel's creation would be allowed to return to their former homes in Israel, along with millions of descendants.
Olmert told visiting U.S. lawmakers this week that he would like to conclude a single-page declaration of principles with Abbas that would offer Palestinians a concept of what a future state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would look like, while avoiding details that could derail talks, Haaretz said.
The Palestinians have said an overly general document could cause a U.S.-sponsored international peace conference to fail. The conference is expected to take place in November, and pressure is mounting on both sides to make substantial progress beforehand.
In Olmert's view, the conference's main goal is to bring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into the diplomatic process, Haaretz said.
"The focus of the effort in the international summit will be to include elements that to date have not been part of the process," the newspaper quoted him as saying.
The deaths of three Palestinian children in an Israeli attack on militant rocket launchers in Gaza on Wednesday clouded efforts to achieve progress ahead of the November conclave.
The Israeli army said it spotted figures handling rocket launchers Wednesday afternoon and attacked them from the ground, killing the three cousins.
Maj. Tal Lev-Ram, an army spokesman, said Wednesday's incident was still being investigated. But he said children should not have been in the area. "It's a war zone," he said. "There's no reason for children to be a meter or two from a rocket launcher."
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the killings, predicting violence would breed more violence.
"This will add to the complexities and feed the fire," Erekat said.
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