By Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
JERUSALEM, April 1 — Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian movement, announced Sunday that it was working to unify its armed groups under one command in an apparent effort to strengthen and impose discipline on its notoriously divided militias.
A Fatah spokesman in Gaza, Maher Meqdad, said the restructuring of the military wing is intended to prevent small splinter groups from taking “individual decisions.”
But the drive for unity is also being seen in Gaza as an attempt to beef up Fatah’s capabilities against its rival, the Islamic militant group Hamas. Fatah did not fare well in armed confrontations with Hamas in recent months. Hamas had set up a parallel police force, the Executive Force, and it was members of that group that clashed with the Palestinian Authority security branches, including the Presidential Guard, which is loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah.
Fatah’s new unified military wing would not be a part of the Palestinian Authority security forces, which are supposed to represent all Palestinians.
Fatah denies that it is preparing for another confrontation with Hamas. In response to a report on Sunday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Fatah has so far recruited 1,400 fighters for a new Special Force in anticipation of further clashes, Mr. Meqdad told reporters, “We are interested in maintaining our national unity.”
In the months before the Feb. 8 agreement reached in Mecca between Hamas and Fatah to establish a unity government, more than 100 Palestinians died in factional fighting, mostly in Gaza. The unity government is dominated by Hamas but includes several Fatah members and independents. One of its main goals was to end the internal violence, but since the government was formed in mid-March, more than a dozen Palestinians have been killed in fighting between the two groups.
The Executive Force is a parallel police force intended to counter the control that Fatah exercises over the Palestinian Authority security forces. It numbers about 6,000 men according to Hamas, and up to 10,000 according to Israeli military officials, who express concern about the Islamic movement’s military build-up in the Gaza Strip.
Abdul Hakim Awad, a Fatah spokesman, told the Palestinian news agency Maan that the newly unified Fatah force would consist of about 5,000 men. The force is to be called Al Asifa, Arabic for “the storm,” which was the original name of Fatah’s military wing when it was founded more than 40 years ago.
The United States is planning to provide $59 million to bolster President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority forces loyal to him, Reuters reported in late March, but the money is still awaiting approval by Congress. Much of the new security package is earmarked to “transform and strengthen” Mr. Abbas’s presidential guard, according to American government documents Reuters said it had obtained.
Also on Sunday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel invited Arab leaders to join him for talks in a regional peace summit meeting in Jerusalem.
“I invite for a meeting all the heads of Arab states — including, of course, the King of Saudi Arabia, who I see as a very important leader — to hold talks with us,” Mr. Olmert said at a news conference in Jerusalem with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
“I do not intend to dictate to them what they should say, but I am certain they understand that we also will have something to say,” he said.
Mr. Olmert had previously spoken of “positive elements” in an Arab peace initiative from 2002 that was reaffirmed at a meeting of Arab heads of state in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday. But he still takes issue with certain elements that plan, in particular the part insisting that Palestinian refugees be allowed the so-called right of return to Israel.
Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Mr. Olmert, described the prime minister’s call as a “new initiative” and said it resulted from the atmosphere created by the Saudi summit meeting. Mr. Olmert was “influenced” by the fact that all the Arab leaders got together and spoke about resolving the conflict with Israel through dialogue, Ms. Eisin said.
Still, leaders of Arab states that have no diplomatic relations with Israel have always adamantly refused public meetings with Israeli officials.
Ms. Merkel met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah on Sunday. Ms. Merkel currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, which announced on Saturday that it would maintain contacts with non-Hamas, moderate members of the Palestinian government, contrary to Israel’s hopes that countries would boycott the government. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel and the European Union.
Ms. Merkel met with the Palestinian president, Mr. Abbas, but her aides said she would not meet with any Palestinian cabinet ministers during this visit.
Israel’s head of military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, told cabinet officials on Sunday that Israeli intelligence had seen signs of defensive planning by Syria, Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, all seemingly bracing for a possible attack by the United States in the coming months.
The Bush administration has repeatedly said that it would rely on diplomacy to address its concerns with Iran’s nuclear program. And last week, Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration did not believe military conflict with Iran was inevitable.
At his news conference later, Mr. Olmert denied reports of a possible coordinated offensive by the United States and Israel against Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
Mr. Olmert dismissed the idea of such a plan as “baseless, and an unfounded rumor with no foundation.”