The United States must provide safeguards to ensure American weapons and financial aid reportedly being given to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Force 17 personal security detail do not wind up in the possession of Palestinian terror groups, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East, told WorldNetDaily.
Ros-Lehtinen was responding to a WND exclusive interview last week.
in which Abu Yousuf, a Force 17 officer, said weapons and aid the U.S. may provide to his group could be shared with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror organization, the declared “military wing” of Fatah.
Abu Yousuf, who also serves in the Al Aqsa Brigades, hinted previous American assault rifles sent by the U.S. to Force 17 this past may were used in a spate of shooting attacks against Israeli civilians.
“We cannot be blinded to the fact that in this case, there is a propensity that U.S. assistance could, whether deliberately or inadvertently, find its way to extremist groups,” said Ros-Lehtinen.
“With the representation within the ranks of Abbas’ Fatah party of militants with ties to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, there is a potential that our own weapons could later be used against our ally, Israel, and potentially against U.S. priorities in the region.
“As such, I am committed to working with my colleagues to ensure that, if such assistance is provided, proper safeguards and monitoring are in place to avoid diversion of weapons and resources into the hands of Islamist jihadists operating in the Palestinian territories or working with Hamas and other entities classified by the U.S. as foreign terrorist organizations,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
The congresswoman previously sponsored legislation along with Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., calling for a halt to U.S. assistance to the PA following Hamas’ victory in last January’s Palestinian elections.
According to multiple reports, the U.S. is leading a campaign to bolster Abbas’ Force 17 against Hamas, which won a majority of parliamentary seats in Palestinian elections earlier this year. Force 17 protects the Abbas and also serves as a special security force on behalf of the Fatah party.
Hamas and Fatah have been fighting in the Gaza Strip and West Bank the past three weeks after negotiations to establish a national unity government between the two appeared to have fallen through.
A senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told WND that Fatah security officials noted in recent firefights Hamas members used weaponry more advanced than what was known to have been in the Hamas arsenal, including newer styles of assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
After a meeting with Abbas in Ramallah last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters the U.S. would “do what it can” to bolster Abbas.
The Washington Times reported this week the U.S. is working on a plan to build up Force 17. Last week, the New York Times reported the U.S. proposed expanding Abbas’ Force 17 from 3,500 men to 6,000 as part of a $26-million plan to strengthen the Palestinian leader.
The Associated Press and Israel’s leading Yediot Aharonot daily reported Friday new training facilities for Force 17 are slated to be set up in Jericho and in Gaza, at a cost of $2 million each, according to the U.S. proposal.
Senior Palestinian officials told WND the U.S. is planning to transfer ammunition and new assault rifles to Force 17 and has pledged to procure about $28 million in aid to Abbas. They said the U.S. would help train Force 17 members in the operation of the new weapons and in advanced combat techniques in facilities already in use in Jericho. The State Department did not return calls for comment.
Sources in the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem confirmed to WND the U.S. is slated to transfer weapons to Force 17.
David Baker, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Olmert’s office had no comment on reports of new U.S. aid to Abbas. Sources in Olmert’s office confirmed the U.S. aid package reportedly offered to Abbas.
Force 17 officer Abu Yousuf told WND last week weapons and aid the U.S. may provide to his group will not be used for “force and violence against our brothers in Hamas unless they will endanger [Abbas].
“There is a chance that Israel will attack the Palestinian territories, and in this case, these weapons and others provided (by the U.S. to Force 17) will be directed towards the (Israeli) occupation.”
Abu Yousuf said the latest planned U.S. weapons transfer was meant to spark a Palestinian civil war and ensure Palestinian security forces are “friendly” to the West.
“We are aware that a civil war is the dream of the Zionists and the Americans, but it will not happen so quickly,” said Abu Yousuf. “The Americans see their situation in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and they know that a war against Iran is a matter of time, and they want to guarantee that in Palestine there will not be a regime who will be hostile to the U.S. and will not endanger Israel.”
Continued the Force 17 officer: “They (Americans) hope that these arms will be used against our brothers in Hamas, but we ask Allah that our brothers are also aware of this issue and will not play into the hands of the Americans and the Israelis.”
The last known weapons transfer to Force 17 took place in May and reportedly consisted of 3,000 assault rifles and more than 1 million rounds of ammunition.
At first, the U.S., Israel and the PA denied the reports of the weapons transfer, but Olmert in June announced he had approved the shipment of U.S. weapons and ammunition, explaining the transfer was meant for Abbas’ personal protection.
“I did this because we are running out of time and we need to help Abu Mazen,” Olmert told reporters.
The shipment required Israeli consent to pass through checkpoints. It was delivered by a convoy protected by the Israeli Defense Forces, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials involved in the transfer.
Abu Yousuf told WND in a previous interview the weapons sent by the U.S. in May would be fired at Israelis. “These weapons will not be used in an internal war but against Israelis,” he said. “Force 17 is proud that we were the first to lead the Palestinian people during tough times such as resistance operations (against the Israeli army during large-scale operations in northern Samaria in 2002). We will also be the first to lead the Palestinians in the current struggle against Israeli occupation.”
Like Abu Yousuf, many Force 17 officers are also members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. In June, Abbas appointed senior Brigades leader Mahmoud Damra as commander of Force 17. Damra, who was arrested by Israel last month, was on the Jewish state’s most-wanted list of terrorists. He is accused of masterminding a string of attacks and leading a terror cell based in Ramallah allegedly responsible for scores of shootings against Israelis.
Together with the Islamic Jihad terror group, the Brigades has taken responsibility for every suicide bombing inside Israel the past two years, including an attack in Tel Aviv in April that killed American teenager Daniel Wultz and nine Israelis. The Brigades also has carried out scores of deadly shooting and rocket attacks against Israeli civilians in recent months.
Asked to confirm other Force 17 officers also are members of the Brigades, Abu Yousuf replied: “During our official service and during our job hours we are soldiers. What we do in our free time it is our business. Of course, as members of Fatah, some of us are members in the Brigades and we take part in the defense and protection of our people and in the fight against the Israeli occupation.”
The State Department includes the Brigades on its official list of international terror organizations, while general U.S. policy deems the Fatah party “moderate.”
American weapons ambushed schoolgirls?
Sources close to the Al Aqsa Brigades told WND the American assault rifles transferred in May were used in three separate anti-Israel shooting attacks in June. One attack killed a 35-year-old Israeli Arab on a major West Bank highway on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Israeli security officials say the shooters likely mistook the victim for a Jew. The second attack, which occurred June 13 on the same highway, lightly wounded an Israeli.
In the third attack, the Al Aqsa Brigades June 19 a.m.bushed a bus carrying Israeli school girls on a West Bank highway. The bus was armored. The school girls escaped unharmed.
Israel arrested two members of Force 17 in connection with the shootings. Abu Yousuf refused to confirm whether the American weapons were used in the spate of highway attacks, but he hinted the information was accurate.
“The fighters who were arrested by the Israeli army in relation to these attacks are Force 17 men, but I cannot confirm what weapons they used. It is no coincidence that as soon as these American weapons arrived, we were able to carry out these accurate shootings.” Abu Yousuf said.