A three-member Palestinian Authority committee consisting of Chairman Yasser Arafat, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and apparently Mohammed Dahlan, the PA's former minister of security, is being formed to oversee PA activities regarding Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.
The committee's final composition and its functions are still being discussed by Arafat and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Egypt's minister who is responsible for the Palestinians' situation and their security. The negotiations are taking place simultaneous to discussions over the possibility that Israel will lift the siege of Arafat in the Muqata.
The new committee signifies means much greater involvement by the PA - and Arafat, personally - in implementation of the Israeli withdrawal plan. Egyptian elements are still pressing Arafat to grant Dahlan a significant role in the panel, but so far, the chairman has not conceded and the panel's composition, as well as the identity of the next interior minister who will be in charge of the security forces, has not been determined.
Palestinian sources said that Arafat gave "a positive response, in principle," to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak regarding Egypt's security plan for Gaza, but, as opposed to previous reports, the Arafat letter does not include explicit acceptance of the Egyptian demands - that is, reducing the number of PA security forces to three, appointing an interior minister with full authority over the three forces, transfering real powers to the Palestinian premier, and Egypt's training and directly supervising PA security forces operating in Gaza.
Arafat's office has issued a statement welcoming the Egyptian plan while also attacking it, warning that it deviates from the road map.
Meanwhile, efforts are under way in Gaza to find housing for the Egyptian security officials who are due in the Strip soon. An advance group of Egyptians, which is to pave the way for future visits by officials, is expected by mid-month. Hundreds of security advisers, mostly from Egypt's Interior Ministry, will serve as trainers and supervisors of the PA security apparatus as well as contacts who will try to reach a cease-fire deal with the various armed factions in the Strip, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. PA officials have begun identifying and preparing facilities for training bases in areas acceptable to Israel and which Israel will not attack.
Israel and Egypt are setting up a joint committee to deal with issues relating to Egypt's plan for Israel's withdrawal, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said yesterday after meeting with Osama el Baz, Mubarak's longtime political adviser. The committee will include three subcommittees dealing with political, security and economic issues. Shalom is expected to represent Israel on the main committee.
The joint committee draws its mandate from the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, although the specific article enabling the formation of such a committee has never been applied.
Shalom also met with Mubarak and Suleiman yesterday. The Egyptians were very keen to hear about the cabinet decision approving the Gaza disengagement, asking about the difference between what was approved and the original plan conceived by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. There was some oblique criticism over the way the disengagement plan received cabinet approval, with el Baz saying that "we hope Israel sticks to the original disengagement plan. There's no point in trying to gain time."
The Egyptians explained to Shalom that they have made it clear to Arafat that certain candidates to head a new, reformed Palestinian security establishment are unacceptable, and they told Shalom they are still awaiting a full answer from Arafat. The Egyptians said they sense that this time Arafat will comply with all their demands.
So far, Tayeb Abdul Rahim, Arafat's bureau secretary, has been mentioned as a possible PA interior minister candidate. Rahim served as a liaison between the PA security organizations and Arafat in the past, and has the chairman's trust. Other names being mentioned are Gen. Nasser Yusuf, whom Arafat refused to allow to become interior minister for either Mahmoud Abbas or Qureia, and Sa'ab al-Araj, the commander of the Palestinian National Security Force in the northern Gaza Strip. He is a veteran Palestinian officer who has won the respect of Israeli officials.
The Egyptian security plan is being formulated as the security forces in Gaza go through a major crisis. Last Thursday, hundreds of police barricaded the National Security Forces in Dir al-Balah in central Gaza, beating senior officers in the command and demanding reforms that would include deposing commanders of the force.
Hamas also is coming out against the Egyptian plan. The organization yesterday called the paln "an act of betrayal lying in wait to ambush the Palestinian people and the region." The Hamas statement, made after a meeting of its political leader Khaled Maashal with the spiritual leader of the Shi'ites in Lebanon, Sheikh Mohammed Fadlallah, included veiled threats against the PA and Egyptian officials involved in the plan, but added that the "compass of the armed struggle will continue to be aimed at the Zionist enemy."