Wael Al-ahmed, Adam Entous
November 15, 2007 - 6:17pm

Work crews are laying foundations for a Palestinian state, clearing away the twisted ruins of government compounds destroyed by Israel to start a major rebuilding campaign.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's plan calls for rebuilding eight muqatas -- Arabic for headquarters -- and other administrative buildings flattened by Israel across the occupied West Bank after the start of a Palestinian uprising in 2000.

Once seen by Palestinians as symbols of sovereignty, the ruins that remain have become permanent reminders of Israel's destructive power and the Palestinian Authority's weakness.

The reconstruction drive is one of the largest since the 1993 Oslo Accords that led to the creation of the Authority.

"This is more important than paying wages. It is the symbol of authority," said Fayyad, who estimated the price tag at $100 million, a huge sum for a government already expected to need $1.6 billion in foreign aid to close its annual budget gap.

Workers have started clearing rubble and putting down foundations at some of the sites ahead of this month's planned conference on Palestinian statehood, called by Washington to try to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Fayyad after Hamas Islamists seized the Gaza Strip in June.

Israel says it destroyed the sprawling cement and concrete security structures, dating back to British and in some cases Ottoman rule, after accusing then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his security forces of being complicit in attacks against Israel, a charge the Palestinians denied.

The top European adviser to the Palestinian police, Colin Smith, said rebuilding the muqatas was "essential if you're going to get your security forces together."

"One of the lessons of Gaza is you had five or six different organizations, all independent of each other," said Smith, formerly a senior British law enforcement official. "It's also a political statement about who is running the place."


The muqatas were among the few landmarks left from British rule and among the first structures in the region made largely from concrete rather than stone, said Nazmi al-Jubeh, co-director of Riwaq, an organization that protects Palestinian architectural sites.

Jubeh said the compounds, for many Palestinians including himself, evoked a range of emotions, both positive and negative.

He was imprisoned by Israel at three of the Muqatas in the 1970s, remembers when the Palestinians took them over after Oslo and lamented their destruction by Israel. "Important landmarks do not always have to do with beauty," Jubeh said.

Colonel Radhi Assida, deputy commander of the Palestinian National Security forces in Jenin, said Israel's destruction of the muqatas was part of a campaign to demoralize his men.

"Everything was destroyed. There were no rifles. There was no place for a soldier to spend the night. So how could he work? The gangs were better off," Assida said.

Assida's men are now on the frontline of Fayyad's Western-backed campaign to rein in militants -- Israel's main condition for implementing any future peace agreements.

"We have real soldiers again. All of them have their salaries. They are enthusiastic to carry out their orders. We have the upper hand on the streets," he said.

Israeli officials dispute Palestinian assertions they will be able to exert security control any time soon. Assida blames Israeli restrictions for making the job more difficult.

Rebuilding is getting under way in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, says Governor Hussein al-Araj. "We don't know when we are going to finish but we have started," he said.

Qadoura Mousa, the governor of the northern city of Jenin, said work crews would begin removing the rubble of the destroyed muqata there within days. "All of it will be demolished," he said. The rebuilding will take two years, he estimated.

Jenin's muqata was built during British rule and housed Jordanian forces until Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. Mousa said rebuilding the structure was like opening a new chapter in the history of Jenin, one of the cities Israel hit hardest during the uprising.

"Nobody likes to look only at ruins," Mousa said. "The people of Jenin won't dwell on the past forever."

Zakaria al-Zubeidi, the main leader of Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the Jenin refugee camp, said rebuilding the muqata was a sign of Palestinian strength.

"If we left all that Israel demolished, we will never move forward," said Zubeidi, who agreed to stop fighting the Israelis in exchange for amnesty. "I will never forget what Israel did, whether the rubble is there or not."

(Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah and Haitham Tamimi in Hebron; Editing by Charles Dick)


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