Joke sours for PLO's laughing policeman

Robert Fisk in Gaza City meets the Palestinian chief law enforcer who has been sidelined for being too nice
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In the ante-room, Brigadier-General Ziad al-Atrash, head of Palestinian joint security - the man who liaises with the Israeli army to stop attacks against Israelis - is checking his diary. A thick black walking stick in his left hand is topped by the brass head of a savage-looking eagle.

Armed men come and go, some in civilian clothes, others in uniform, all seeking appointments with Major-General Nasser Youssef, commander of the Palestinian police, hero of Golan, Palestine Liberation Organisation fighter in Lebanon, refugee from 1948 Palestine. And when I walk through General Nasser's door - its Israeli security lock snapping open at the touch of a card - there is the great, bespectacled man, all smiles, overweight perhaps but smartly uniformed, a big clammy hand extended in welcome.

He is an optimist. ''How do you think we're doing in the Palestinian authority?" he asks. So I mention the endless delays in implementation of the Palestinian agreements with Israel, the continued presence of Israeli troops in Gaza, the suicide bombs, the continued settlement building, the midnight courts, the deaths in custody, Amnesty International...

"All peace treaties are imposed by a leverage of power and so is this one," the general replies. "But look, after 1917 the 'world order' of the period gave the Jews a homeland and divided us. In 1948, another 'world order' created the state of Israel and nullified the Palestinians from both the geographic and demographic map.

"But now we have managed to relocate ourselves on the international map and re-establish our identity as Palestinians. It is the first time we have shouldered the responsibility of our people and it gives us the chance to rebuild what was destroyed by the occupation in Gaza: the economy and society and the culture. The Palestinian entity is now international, created under the same resolutions that created Israel."

But that's not true, I reply. Israel was internationally recognised by the United Nations - no UN resolutions guarantee the PLO's agreement with Israel. "OK," General Nasser replies, "OK - but no one can shoulder the responsibility of destroying the peace process. The Jewish settlers have two options: to evacuate [Palestinian territory] or to become Palestinian citizens. Israel can't have both the peace and the land ...

"Things are not easy, it's true. But there is an existing reality - a fact: three million Palestinians are on the ground, in the West Bank and in Gaza. Israel has two choices: independence for the Palestinians or a complete merger with the Palestinians - but they can't keep on with their imperialistic policy [of occupation]. They can't expel these Palestinian people and they are keen to cooperate with what exists."

So what of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and their suicide bombers? The general divides both groups into "moderates" and "extremists" - a dodgy enough formula even if there were evidence to support it - and comes up with the equation that democracy and economic progress equals less violence. The Israelis and Americans agree with the economic argument. As for democracy, even Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman and the general's commander-in-chief, might have doubts about that.

''We have to allow all concerned parties to participate in democracy," the general says. ''The democratic formula must be guaranteed by law and regulations. " So what about the secret courts, the midnight arrests? General Nasser emits a long and merry chuckle. ''You will have to ask the chairman about this," he said.

And Amnesty's recent damning report on human rights abuses in Gaza? The general's hand comes down firmly on his desk. ''I want to tell you something," he says. ''I have today just finished a long reply to Amnesty and elaborated to them upon all these issues. No doubt the practices we have here need excuses or reasons. But our current stage is a very difficult one. In the past, we had security for the PLO, we were responsible only for members of our organisation. Now we are responsible for our society and community. We have to change all aspects of our behaviour to break away from the revolutionary period.

All this may sound fair enough. But it is the PLO's constant refrain that it is bound to make ''mistakes" during what it calls ''this transitional period" and it is a fact - not admitted by the general, of course, but well known among the men he calls his "cadres" - that Mr Arafat has sidelined the optimistic, humanitarian commander of the Palestinian police, who now probably has more antagonists within the PLO's security apparatus than he has in Hamas.

Put bluntly, General Nasser is too nice. Ask how many prisoners are held in Gaza and he says: ''Only about 150". Ask when they will be released and he shakes with laughter once more - for all of 15 seconds - and says yet again: ''Why don't you ask the chairman?"

In the Palestinian police headquarters, however, it is not so much the prisoners - incarcerated just across the road from where we are sitting, in the old Israeli jail - that catch the visitor's attention: it is the uniforms. The police are dressed like soldiers. Police commander Nasser Youssef is a major-general rather than a chief constable; indeed he is still using his nom de guerre, his real name being Mustapha Bishtawi. Most of the men round Arafat on official occasions wear military uniform. Indeed, Gaza seems awash with generals and brigadier-generals and major-generals.

''You mean you want to see Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat] wear a suit and tie? Yes, this would be good," the general says. When will that happen, I ask.

''You must ask the chairman," he roars, and I get the big clammy hand in mine again, a promise to chat once more in a few months' time, when - so he assures me - peace has been consolidated further. And as I leave his offices, past armed and uniformed security men, down a long staircase where plainclothes men with guns are standing guard, I come across a young man trudging up the steps. He is carrying a dozen massive flak jackets for the staff - military ones, khaki in colour, all brand new. Yes, the people clearly need security.