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British MI6 to improve gaza security

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MI6 agents drafted in to improve Gaza security
By Anton La Guardia, Diplomatic Editor
(Filed: 20/11/2004)

MI6 agents and British police are setting up a high-tech control centre for Palestinian security services in the Gaza Strip to help them maintain control in the volatile territory after the death of Yasser Arafat.

As one of the few countries with credibility among both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Britain is moving quickly to try to turn the death of Mr Arafat into an opportunity to revive peace talks after four years of bloodletting. Tony Blair last week secured a commitment from President George W Bush to push for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, will follow up with a visit to the region next week, when he will be offering "practical support".

The nerve centre for Palestinian security forces in Gaza is expected to become operational within weeks.

It is an attempt discreetly to shore up moderate Palestinian leaders and pave the way for Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next year.

"Everybody agrees that in a time of transition, security is the key," said a senior British source.

But the deployment of British security "advisers" in Gaza is risky, amid power struggles between rival Palestinian factions and the armed confrontation between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen.

During a visit to Gaza last week, the new leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Mahmoud Abbas, was caught in a battle between rival Palestinian gunmen in which two people were killed and 10 wounded. Palestinian officials insist it was not an assassination attempt but it highlighted the volatility of the situation in Gaza.

Britain is one of the few countries, apart from the US, trusted by the Israelis on security issues.

British officials are working alongside US colleagues in monitoring a Palestinian prison in Jericho to reassure Israel that high-profile inmates remain behind bars.

However, there was controversy last year when Britain recalled Alistair Crooke, an ex-MI6 officer working for the EU, who was involved in several ill-fated attempts to negotiate ceasefires between Israel and Palestinian factions.

Earlier this year, British officials set up a joint operations room to help unify the myriad of Palestinian security services in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"The central operations room is a good news story. If you have relatively modest objectives you can succeed," said a British official.

However, senior Israeli security sources regard it as pointless until Palestinians find the political will to fight militants. Britain held back from setting up a control centre in Gaza because of fears of unrest. But after Mr Arafat's death, they hope it will provide a stabilising influence.

British officials said the Gaza security nerve centre will at first deal only with "civil policing" rather than more politically charged issues of curbing attacks against Israel. This appears to be a recognition of the rivalry between Gaza factions.

British officials say their role will be limited to behind-the-scenes "advice". The main outside security role in Gaza is reserved for Egypt. But it is unclear whether Israel's accidental killing of three Egyptian security officers on the border this week will prompt Cairo to rethink its involvement.

The Israeli army's chief of staff yesterday ordered an investigation into claims that Palestinian corpses were desecrated by Israeli soldiers following the publication of photographs in a newspaper.

One of the pictures, which appeared in the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot daily, showed a soldier pointing his weapon at a corpse while pressing his foot into the half-naked body.

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