U.S.-Trained Palestinian Force is Keen for Action

JENIN, West Bank (AP) - In the live-fire exercise, everything
was carefully choreographed - Palestinian commandos, faces
blackened, stormed a hide-out in an abandoned building, "wounded"
one gunman and "arrested" a second.

But is this corps, American-trained and steadily growing, ready
for the real thing? President Barack Obama's hopes for a Middle
East peace breakthrough may rest heavily on that question.

The force being shaped for the West Bank is supposed to underpin
the Palestinian government of Western-backed President Mahmoud
Abbas against violent challenges by Hamas, other extremists and
criminal gangs, while convincing Israel that having a Palestinian
state for a neighbor will pose no threat.

Israel says the force is improving but isn't yet ready to assume
sole security control in West Bank towns. The Palestinians say
their forces are doing a good job, but that Israel is hiding behind
vague security arguments to avoid pulling back its own troops,
while continuing to carry out its own raids in the West Bank.

The Associated Press, granted rare access to the recruits in the
northern West Bank town of Jenin, heard complaints that they are
restricted to islands of limited authority in the
Israeli-controlled territory, can't make a move without Israel's
permission, are outgunned by Hamas, and lack riot and protective
gear because of Israeli import restrictions.

Distrust runs both ways. Palestinian suspicions are sharpened by
continued Israeli settlement expansion in areas they want for their
state. Israel's concerns are weighted by memories of a previous
Palestinian security force, some of whose members ended up turning
their guns against Israeli targets during the Palestinian uprising
that broke out in 2000.

The new forces are being trained in neighboring Jordan under the
auspices of Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator in
the region. Since 2008, four battalions totaling 2,100 men have
deployed in the West Bank, the most recent this month, and another
three battalions are to be added, bringing the total to around
3,600.

They have had their first real test in recent weeks, twice
clashing with Hamas gunmen in the town of Qalqiliya. Five Hamas
fighters and four members of the security forces were killed.

The West Bank's various security forces already number some
24,000 Palestinians including police. These forces were troubled in
the past by corruption, overlapping mandates, poor training and
damaging Israeli raids, and in recent years there have been
repeated attempts to reform them.

The new force is different, says Dayton.

"What we have created are new men," he told a Washington think
tank last month. "For the first time, I think it's fair to say
that the Palestinian security forces feel they are on a winning
team."

Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, a senior aide to Israeli Defense
Minister Ehud Barak, told the same forum that the new forces, most
of them drawn straight from high school, are doing a good job.
"It's not quite that they can assume full security responsibility,
but we are on the right way," he said. "And for the first time, I
see some sense of professional pride there that we've never seen in
these forces."

Dayton calls them a "gendarmerie," a definition that would
sidestep any argument with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu, who wants the future Palestinian state to be
demilitarized.

Such a state is supposed to include the Gaza Strip, but that
union has been cast into doubt since Abbas lost Gaza to a Hamas
takeover two years ago. Hamas also has a strong West Bank presence,
and Abbas has been cracking down, arresting hundreds of its
activists, drying up their funding and shutting down their
institutions.

In Jenin, members of the third U.S.-trained battalion seemed to
have a clear sense of purpose, saying their mission was to help
build a Palestinian state and fight "outlaws." None referred to
Hamas by name.

Yet they expressed frustration about the lack of protective
vests, helmets, rubber bullets and smoke bombs.

"We don't want promises. We want something tangible," said
Mahmoud Khateeb, deputy commander of the third battalion that
completed training in Jordan in January and deployed in Jenin and
other northern towns - Tulkarem, Qalqiliya and Nablus.

In the live-fire exercise, 15 of Khateeb's commandos, along with
members of other security branches, surrounded an abandoned
two-story building on a hill just outside Jenin, with the mission
to overpower two "gunmen" inside.

Israel was notified since the drill involved live fire, and
pilotless Israeli aircraft hovered above.

At their barracks in Jenin, the troops from the third battalion
live at least 14 to a trailer packed with bunk beds. Ahmed Salahat,
20, rested on a bed after the drill. Asked how he felt about having
Hamas for an enemy, said he felt the Islamic militants have no
compunction about firing on fellow Palestinians.

The Qalqiliya shootouts were the first deadly confrontations in
the two-year crackdown on Hamas, and they shook up the men. Salahat
said he's now more concerned about his safety.

Col. Rade Asedeh, the Jenin district commander, said his troops
are only permitted to carry pistols and Russian-made Kalashnikov
assault rifles, while Hamas fighters have American-made M16s,
grenades, explosives and other weapons. Some of his men use M16s
seized from Hamas.

Asedeh said protective vests, helmets and rubber bullets paid
for by donor countries lie in storage in Egypt and Jordan, waiting
for Israeli import permission. Also, 50 Russian-made armored
personnel carriers, which he said were badly needed, have not been
allowed in. The pistols and assault rifles come from members of the
older Palestinian security agencies.

Dayton, whose team includes British, Canadian and Turkish
officers, noted in his Washington speech that the U.S. only gives
the force non-lethal equipment.

"We don't provide anything to the Palestinians unless it has
been thoroughly coordinated with the state of Israel and they agree
to it," he said.

"Sometimes this process drives me crazy - I had a lot more hair
when I started - but nevertheless, we make it work."

The Israeli military said the vast majority of equipment
requests are approved, security considerations permitting. It would
not elaborate.

Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Abbas has been trying to
assert more security control in West Bank towns, and Jenin has been
held up as a success story. Once a militant stronghold, the town
was now deemed safe enough for a visit last year by Condoleezza
Rice, then U.S. secretary of state.

But Asedeh, the Jenin commander, said he still has to coordinate
with Israel if his forces want to travel beyond the town's limits
to any of its 86 surrounding villages. He also said Israeli troops
routinely enter Jenin for arrest raids.

The purpose of these raids, said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian
negotiator, is "to undermine the credibility of our security
forces and their ability to function, to avoid withdrawing" from
Palestinian cities.

Dayton, however, said Israeli generals seem eager to see his
force take over. He said they have been asking him "How many more
of these new Palestinians can you generate, and how quickly?
Because they are our way to leave the West Bank."

Michael Oren, the new Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said based
on past experience, Israel has to move cautiously.

"So by re-creating a Palestinian police force - training it
along American methods, providing it with weaponry - we are taking
a risk," Oren said. "The issue is confidence-building ... we're
proceeding very cautiously, but proceeding."


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