RAMALLAH, West Bank — Officials from the Palestinian Authority are still seething from a nighttime clash last week between Israeli and Palestinian forces near the home of President Mahmoud Abbas.
But unlike typical Israeli operations in what is defined by the Oslo Accords as Area A — when Palestinian forces routinely withdraw from designated areas for a limited period to allow Israeli forces to complete missions — Abbas' personal red beret guards refused to allow Israeli troops to pass through the barriers erected as safety zone around the vicinity of the PA president's home.
A heated face-off ensued, with shouting, threats and some physical scuffles between the two sides, but no shots were fired, Israeli and Palestinian sources said.
The entire altercation lasted about 15 minutes, until the Israeli commander at the scene decided to take an alternate, more circuitous route that did not penetrate the cordoned safety zone leading to the Palestinian leader's home.
"Our soldiers came to the barrier that blocked off the street and told their soldiers to lower their weapons, that we needed to work here," a senior Israeli official recounted.
"The security of Abu Mazen [Abbas] started arguing, and after a few minutes, our soldiers understood. They took a different route. There was no violence; just shouting and perhaps pushing."
After Abbas' office phoned the Israeli Civil Administration Authority to complain about the event, a formal apology was issued on behalf of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sources from both sides said.
"They apologized for what they claim was a mistake," a senior Palestinian commander told Defense News. "I'm not sure it was a mistake, but Netanyahu sent his apology."
In a Tuesday interview, Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator and a top trusted adviser to Abbas, said the incident illustrated the routine "humiliations" and "utter disregard" that Israel has for Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
"It was a despicable act," Erekat said. "They ordered Abu Mazen's guards to disappear. … This wasn't published, but it happened. They were practically in his garden, approaching his house just to tell him 'We're here.' As if he needs to be reminded. Personally, I don't know why Abu Mazen is taking all of this. I honestly don't know."
In a separate Tuesday interview, a senior Palestinian commander said a crisis was averted in last week's incident, but wasn't sure if cooler heads would prevail the next time around.
The commander complained bitterly about Israel's nightly incursions into Area A, which he says undermines the legitimacy of the PA security forces and security apparatus.
"Area A doesn't exist anymore," he lamented. "The Israelis can invade anytime. It's an open area for Israeli invasion, despite the internationally recognized fact that this area is supposed to be under the full control of the PA."
An IDF spokesman told Defense News that the whole incident was a misunderstanding, and that there was no intention to humiliate or threaten Abbas.
"This was not planned. It was an unfortunate event; and we will draw lessons from it as we continue to function in all areas where our security forces have the need to operate," the senior spokesman said.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.