Land-locked Palestinian naval police faces new work drought
THE land-locked West Bank may seem an unlikely place to situate a naval base, but for Palestinians without land for a state perhaps it is fitting to have a navy without a sea.
Only the small anchors painted in black on the stucco barracks of the Palestinian Naval Police in Jericho recall the sea. Nearby are parched Judean desert hills, including the biblical Mount of Temptation, and the oldest city in the world, sleepy Jericho, itself surrounded on all sides by the Israeli army.
Inside the cramped base, things are hardly on a war footing. An unarmed young naval policeman, wearing khaki camouflage fatigues, greets his visitor and starts preparing the obligatory watery black coffee.
In base commander Lieutenant-Colonel Hatim Hassan’s office, overseen by a framed poster of a smiling Yasser Arafat, the television is tuned to an Arabic music station.
"Our relation with the sea is very weak because the Israelis control the sea and we don’t have the capacity to go into the business of the sea," Lt-Col Hassan admits.
Back in the days of the PLO, the naval police, founded in 1968 in Latakia, Syria, specialised in training for seaborne attacks on Israeli civilian targets. Its last such operation was in 1985, when frogmen on their way to carry out an attack were intercepted by the Israeli navy.
More recently, the naval police came to prominence when its officers were implicated in 2002 in the attempted smuggling to Gaza of a large stash of weapons aboard a ship, the Karine A, that was seized in the Red Sea by the Israeli navy.
What was once envisaged as the navy for an independent state is now a special forces police unit that acts according to Yasser Arafat’s whim.
"The doctrine of the naval police is to show all loyalty to the decisions of the president," says Lt-Col Hassan, 43, whose dream was to captain a commercial ship.
Its policing role and loyalty to Mr Arafat explains why the navy has bases in Jericho, Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron in the West Bank, set up by presidential order in 1995.
There are 1,500 men in the naval police, making it one of the smaller forces among the often competing 11 security branches at Mr Arafat’s disposal. Mr Arafat, under pressure from calls for reform, issued a presidential decree in July that the security forces would be merged into three bodies, a move that would terminate the naval police as an independent force. But analysts say he is loathe to give up his ability to divide and rule security forces.
"To give up that card means he is left completely naked," says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.
In Gaza, after the 1993 Oslo Agreement, the naval police had a few ships ostensibly to patrol against smuggling in the shadow of the Israeli navy, but their main job was to fight challenges to Mr Arafat’s rule. "We acted against the Fatah Hawks, we had to have an iron fist, we had clashes against Hamas as well," says Lt-Col Hassan.
"The goal is always to restore order in the worst conditions. When it is the worst conditions, we move in," he adds.
Lieutenant Akram Farid, 24, pipes up: "With one section of 30 to 50 men we can restore order anywhere."
This has hardly been tested recently. With chaos prevailing across the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank in the form of inter-Palestinian assassinations, attacks on security posts and the rule in some areas of the al-Aksa brigades, there have been increasing Palestinian calls on Mr Arafat to "restore order". But the naval police are waiting for an order that is not coming.
Meanwhile, the idea of a Palestinian navy has been shelved. "Our ambition is to live in peace and security, not to have a navy. We have forgotten about that," says Lt-Col Hassan.
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