Remarks by U.S. Security Coordinator LTG Keith Dayton
Update on the Israeli-Palestinian Situation and Palestinian Assistance Programs
House Foreign Affairs Middle East and South Asia Sub-Committee
May 23, 2007
Mr. Chairman, Representative Pence, and Members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify today. We are all well aware of the deterioration of the security and economic situation in the territories - especially in Gaza - over the last few months. There is a point where inaction - a wait and see attitude- is not an option. The security assistance package that we have proposed, and that was recently approved by Congress, is action and I intend to make the most of it.
First, let me provide a few comments on the current security situation, and then I will address the status of our programs. The violence of the past ten days has clearly demonstrated that the Palestinian security situation, especially in Gaza, has deteriorated significantly since the last time I met with this committee. An atmosphere of lawlessness exists in Gaza, with simple disputes often devolving into gunfights. The Palestinian Minister of Interior, tasked with bringing security to the streets, resigned earlier this month. The HAMAS Prime Minister has assumed his responsibilities while his own party's militias are engaged in a fierce battle with the legitimate Palestinian security forces. The legally constituted Palestinian security forces in the territories - the Presidential Guard, the National Security Forces (NSF), and the Civil Police - are engaged in a battle for law and order like never before. In addition to outright aggression by HAMAS militias, other smaller factions, some also backed by Iran, have conducted attacks throughout the Gaza Strip against the security forces under the authority of President Abbas, creating a situation of total anarchy and highlighting factional divisions between Fatah and Hamas, and probably within Hamas itself. The conflict has also spilled across the border into Israel, with hundreds of Qassams fired at Sderot and nearby communities by rejectionist groups, a reminder that while HAMAS's intermediate target may be the Fatah-loyal forces of law and order in the Gaza Strip, the paramount goal for the rejectionists remains and will continue to be the destruction of Israel. Israel has now launched airstrikes and a limited ground incursion into the Gaza Strip in response to the more recent and damaging Qassam fire this week.
The goal of U.S. security assistance is to help create the conditions necessary to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace via the Roadmap. Through the programs we are just beginning with the Presidential Guard, and at the Karni crossing, we are working with President Abbas to create an environment of security, stability and prosperity in the Palestinian territories. This assistance is a good beginning, but it can only do so much to affect the factional violence and lawlessness pervasive in Gaza at this time. Through the provision of training and non-lethal equipment, the United States is providing the Palestinian Presidential Guard, a force tasked with the protection of the President, VIPs and critical installations, as well as key crossings with Israel, a "security horizon", an assurance that they have support and have a future. The NSF and civil police, the forces tasked with the day-to-day responsibility for ensuring law and order, do not have that assurance. These forces face a daunting challenge not only by HAMAS's Executive Force but also its military force, Izz al Din al Qassam Brigades, both of whom continue to receive support from Iran and Syria. We continue to evaluate the situation and consider ways in which we can take a more proactive role in affecting the dangerous conditions and support President Abbas in his efforts to bring the lawlessness in Gaza under control.
The recent violence in Gaza may in fact be the beginning of a sustained effort by the HAMAS military wing to reassert the dominance of the most extreme elements in the Palestinian political community, and to eliminate altogether Abbas's legitimate security forces in Gaza, creating an extremist statelet on the border of Israel, a major concern that is the subject of frequent discussions I have with my Israeli counterparts. I note that the Presidential Guard unit at the Karni crossing with Israel, who has already received training coordinated by the USSC mission and funded by European donors, successfully stood its ground last week and fought off a determined HAMAS attack. The NSF battalion there also acquitted itself well, despite its dire need of material and financial support and the death of its battalion commander. I fear HAMAS is in this fight for keeps. For this hearing, let me say that the worrisome scenario in Gaza that I have been warning about for the past several months is coming to a head. We are entering a rough patch, but all is not lost and our regional partners share that sentiment. However, it is critical that those who support the legitimate authority and forces represented by President Abbas receive the critical assistance they need.
The United States is leading the international effort to positively affect this worrisome situation, and the security assistance plan we have just begun to implement is pointing out the way forward for all international and regional allies. The programs I will discuss briefly are truly important to advance our national interests, deliver security to Palestinians, and preserve and protect the interests of the State of Israel. I thank you for your support.
The U.S. Security Coordinator Mission, working in close coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the Consulate General in Jerusalem, is focused on three priorities, which are vital to the realization of the President's vision of two independent states living side-by-side in peace and security:
- 1. Improving the security at the Gaza crossings, particularly at the Karni crossing, to advance the goals of the Agreement on Movement and Access and boost Palestinian economic development while addressing Israeli security concerns;
- 2. Improving the capabilities of the Abbas-controlled Presidential Guard to help them protect the President and VIPs, manage security at the crossings, and respond to urgent security situations;
- 3. Working with the Office of the President to establish a capacity for security service oversight, reform, and strategic planning.
The $16 million assistance package for infrastructure improvements on the Palestinian side of the Karni crossing will result in a major security enhancement at this vital commercial link between Gaza and Israel. This work will be implemented by USAID, and they have already issued a solicitation of interest from Gazan construction firms. This is vital for the recovery of the Gaza economy and to address legitimate Israeli security concerns at the crossing. This project has the enthusiastic support of the State of Israel. We have a temporary security zone almost complete on the Palestinian side, financed largely by the Dutch, British, Norwegians and Canadians, and this has resulted in a further 15% daily increase in Palestinian exports in April over the months before. The master plan for the construction project will be complete this summer and final construction will begin before September. The Palestinians, Government of Israel, and members of the international community are investing time and money in this project, complementing our own efforts. We still have our work cut out for us to achieve the AMA goals, but the US $16 million will go a long way towards achieving them.
The Presidential Guard is primed to receive the equipment and training envisioned in its $40 million assistance package. We will focus on close protection to the Office of the President and VIPs, critical logistical and administrative functions, management of security at crossing points, and crisis response. The State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) is partnering with the State Department's Office of Anti-Terrorism (ATA) to provide critical training to the PG. Our planning is well advanced on the training curriculum, and the equipment lists, 100 percent non-lethal, have been finalized. We are proceeding cautiously and expeditiously with our program, and ensuring that the appropriate protocols for vetting and oversight are in place - both in the field and in Washington. I am happy to provide greater details on our vetting process which includes checks for both terrorist affiliation and gross human rights violations. These mechanisms have been coordinated with INL and are already being put in place. Our efforts have been closely coordinated with my Israeli colleagues; there will be no surprises. The practical effect of our preparations is that U.S. funds should begin to make a difference by mid-summer.
The $3 million assistance package to the Office of National Security (ONS) ensures that the USSC has a strong and capable Palestinian partner as we proceed with Palestinian security sector transformation and our focus on a smaller, but more capable Palestinian Security Force, operating under the rule of law and with respect for human rights.
In summary, I am committed personally and professionally to putting the $59 million authorized to me by the Congress to the uses you intended with the Presidential Guard, the Karni Crossing, and the Office of National Security under President Abbas. We must remain mindful of the dangerous challenges facing Abbas's security forces, and continue to encourage our European and Arab partners to complement our efforts with their own assistance. I and my team are in place to help coordinate these efforts in support of U.S. and International commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the realization of the two-state vision.
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