The United States for the past few days has been providing arms to militant groups from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party to bolster it against rival Hamas factions, WND has learned.
According to Israeli and Palestinian security officials, the US weapons shipments have prompted an arms race with Hamas, which has been smuggling into the Gaza Strip larger than usual quantities of weaponry from neighboring Egypt.
The Israeli security officials expressed concern some of the weapons obtained by Fatah and Hamas could be used in attacks against Israeli troops operating in Gaza or in raids of Israeli military stations and communities near the Gaza Strip.
"There is a massive increase in weapons brought in (to Gaza) since last week," said an Israeli security official.
In a WND interview earlier this month, a senior Fatah militant told WND any US aid and weapons given to his security organization will be used to attack Jews and "fight Israeli occupation."
According to Palestinian officials, the US last week provided Abbas' Force 17 security detail with 250 new assault rifles and 5,000 rounds of ammunition. Israel aided in the delivery of the weapons to Force 17 militants in Gaza associated with Fatah strongman Mahmoud Dahlan, the officials said.
The Palestinian officials said the US has provided at least 1,000 rifles this month and that more weapons shipments are expected this week.
Force 17 serves as Abbas' personal security detail and as de facto police units in the West Bank and Gaza. Many of its members also openly serve as militants in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror group.
Force 17 and Hamas have been clashing in Gaza since Abbas this weekend called for new Palestinian elections. Abbas' move was widely seen as an attempt to dismantle the Hamas-led PA.
On Monday, the convoy of Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar came under fire as it passed through Gaza City. Members of Hamas accused Fatah of trying to assassinate al-Zahar.
Hours later, Hamas assaulted a Force 17 base in the Gaza Strip just outside Abbas' office and Gaza residence. Abbas was in the West Bank at the time.
A presidential guard official denounced the Hamas attack as an assault on the "symbol of Palestinian legitimacy."
Olmert: I did it to help Abu-Mazen
WND reported earlier this month US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated in a meeting with Abbas that the US would fulfill an earlier pledge to bolster Force 17 with American training and with new weapons, including 6,000 assault rifles. The US reportedly aims to enhance security forces associated with Abbas against Hamas in Gaza.
Hamas maintains a 6,000-strong militia in Gaza that has several times engaged in firefights with Fatah.
Hamas and Fatah last engaged in heavy fighting in the Gaza Strip and West Bank in October after negotiations to establish a national unity government between the two appeared to have fallen through.
A senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told WND that Fatah security officials noted in the October firefights Hamas members used weaponry more advanced than what was known to have been in the Hamas arsenal, including newer styles of assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. The official said Abbas requested more weapons from the US.
According to multiple reports, the US agreed to aid Force 17. The US considers Fatah "moderate," while it labels Hamas a terror group.
Last month, the New York Times reported the US proposed expanding Abbas' Force 17 from 3,500 men to 6,000 as part of a USD 26 million plan to strengthen the Palestinian leader.
The Associated Press, Haaretz and Israel's leading Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported new training facilities for Force 17 are slated to be set up in Jericho and in Gaza, at a cost of USD 2 million each, according to the US proposal. Palestinian sources told Haaretz the training of select numbers of special Force 17 forces started already in September under the guidance of an American military instructor.
The last known weapons transfer to Force 17 took place in May and reportedly consisted of 3,000 assault rifles and more than 1 million rounds of ammunition.
At first, the US, Israel and the PA denied the reports of the weapons transfer, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in June announced he had approved the shipment of US weapons and ammunition, explaining the transfer was meant for Abbas' personal protection.
"I did this because we are running out of time and we need to help Abu Mazen," Olmert told reporters.
The shipment required Israeli consent to pass through checkpoints. It was delivered by a convoy protected by the Israeli Defense Forces, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials involved in the transfer.
'Rifles to be used against Jews'
Earlier this month Abu Yousuf, a senior member of Force 17, told WND any new US weapons transfers would be used against Israel. Abu Yousuf, like many Force 17 members, is also openly a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror group, the declared "military wing" of Abbas' Fatah party.
Abu Yousuf hinted new weapons provided by the US to Force 17 could be shared with the Al Aqsa Brigades.
"These weapons will put to use against the Israelis," said Abu Yousuf. "Force 17 is proud that we were the first to lead the Palestinian people during tough times such as resistance operations (against the Israeli army during large-scale operations in northern Samaria in 2002). We will also be the first to lead the Palestinians in the current struggle against Israeli occupation."
Many have noted the connections between Force 17 and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror organization.
In June, Abbas appointed senior Brigades leader Mahmoud Damra as commander of Force 17. Damra, who was arrested by Israel last month, was on the Jewish state's most-wanted list of terrorists. He is accused of masterminding a string of attacks and of leading a terror cell based in Ramallah allegedly responsible for scores of shootings against Israelis.
Together with the Islamic Jihad terror group, the Brigades has taken responsibility for every suicide bombing inside Israel the past two years, including an attack in Tel Aviv in April that killed American teenager Daniel Wultz and nine Israelis. The Brigades also has carried out scores of deadly shooting and rocket attacks against Israeli civilians in recent months.
Asked to confirm other Force 17 officers also are members of the Brigades, Abu Yousuf replied: "During our official service and during our job hours we are soldiers. What we do in our free time it is our business. Of course, as members of Fatah, some of us are members in the Brigades and we take part in the defense and protection of our people and in the fight against the Israeli occupation."
The State Department includes the Brigades on its official list of international terror organization.