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For Palestinian Forces, a Growing Role in West Bank

By: Howard Schneider, Washington Post


QALQILYAH, West Bank -- It began with the smell of smoke at the Ayyoub al-Ansari mosque and a routine call to the local fire department, but over the next six weeks, it developed into a full-fledged counterterrorism operation. 

Palestinian security officials, who joined firefighters at the scene, noticed an oddly placed stairwell and found that it led to an underground room stocked with chemicals, guns and a ready-to-go explosives vest. Follow-up arrests and investigation helped uncover a militant safe house and led to a climactic gun battle in late May in which two men from the Islamist Hamas movement -- who had long eluded Israeli capture -- died in a hail of Palestinian fire, according to Palestinian, U.S. and Israeli officials. Three police officers and another resident of the house were also killed.

The fight last month in this northern West Bank town has emerged as a potential turning point in cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security officials, a relationship central to the future emergence of a Palestinian state. Palestinian police and security forces have assumed increasing control over towns in the occupied West Bank, a process that took a significant step forward Thursday when Israel agreed to limit military incursions in four major Palestinian cities.

Amid a marked decline in violence in and emanating from the West Bank, the Israel Defense Forces said its troops would no longer enter Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho and Qalqilyah unless there are "urgent security needs." The agreement, struck at a Palestinian command center outside Bethlehem where commanders from the two sides gathered on Wednesday night, authorizes Palestinian police and security troops to remain in control of the four cities 24 hours a day. They had previously pulled back between midnight and 5 a.m. to avoid "friendly fire" encounters with IDF patrols.

The agreement stops short of recent demands by Palestinian officials that the IDF pull back fully from "area A" -- the mostly urban territory that, under the 1993 Oslo accords, was put under the authority of Palestinian forces. The Oslo arrangement unraveled beginning in 2000 when a violent intifada, or uprising, led the IDF to reestablish control over the entire West Bank and surround Palestinian cities with checkpoints and barriers.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Israel should move more quickly to bolster Palestinian control in the West Bank -- and prove that cooperation will show results more effectively than the confrontational approach taken by the Hamas movement. Hamas, in control of the Gaza Strip, has criticized Palestinian security efforts in the West Bank for helping Israel, and said that its members have borne the brunt of policing efforts.

"We have a domestic constituency, too," Fayyad said in an interview last week. "We need to carry people with us in this process."

The changes announced Thursday reinforce a step-by-step approach that Israeli military officials say will minimize the risk of a major attack that could set back progress. Israeli military and political officials say their intelligence and other operations laid a foundation that Palestinian forces have built on but are not yet ready to assume full control over.

In recent months, Israel has lifted some of the central checkpoints it had established around West Bank cities. At Wednesday's meeting, the Israelis agreed to curtail inspections at others and begin removing some of the concrete blocks and other barriers to movement in the West Bank, according to a Palestinian commander who was present.

IDF raids are still common, particularly in flash-point cities such as Hebron and Nablus -- a fact Fayyad said undermines Palestinian credibility more than it helps Israel's security. But Israeli commanders say they are now trying to reduce the IDF presence in the West Bank as Palestinian forces increase theirs.

"We've started to see change. Less terror. More law and order," said a senior Israeli military source. Palestinian Authority forces "fought Hamas terrorists in Qalqilyah, terrorists that we were looking for. They killed them, and they lost some people. They have the will to win. To protect their country."

The assessment stands in contrast to the situation in the Gaza Strip, where rocket and mortar fire by Hamas and other militant groups into Israel triggered a three-week war in December and January, and a tightened Israeli blockade of the area.

In the West Bank, European officials have been training Palestinian municipal police. A separate U.S.-funded effort has shipped hundreds of recruits to Jordan for a four-month program designed to improve the Palestinian National Security Forces. Partly about security and partly about nation-building, the program is meant to break down clan and political ties by drawing troops from across the West Bank and molding them into geographically diverse units.

Four battalions of about 500 people each have been deployed to Palestinian cities in the last two years, with six more battalions planned. The muscle behind operations like the one in Qalqilyah, they have helped curb overall crime in the West Bank, allowed nightlife to return in some cities, and have been credited by Israeli officials, at least partially, with causing a drop in attacks inside Israel proper.

In addition, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Fayyad have restructured the chaotic quilt of security and paramilitary forces maintained by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat under a unified command that is gaining Israeli trust. Top Palestinian commanders meet biweekly with Israeli brigade leaders under Israel's chief West Bank officer, Brig. Gen. Noam Tibon -- a level of interplay not seen since the intifada, and the peak of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in the years after Oslo.

In some cases, veteran commanders from Arafat's years have emerged as what the U.S. and Israelis regard as streetwise and seasoned leaders, now given more of the tools, the authority and the political backing to do their jobs.

When Israel began military operations in Gaza in late December, there was concern about the potential for violence in the West Bank. In the offices of Palestinian commanders such as Col. Suleiman Omran, a veteran of Arafat's Fatah party, the fax machine began humming early on the day of the invasion -- with clear orders to allow peaceful protest, but nothing more.

Omran, in charge of Palestinian security forces in the Bethlehem governate, said emotions ran high among the security chiefs he gathered in an operations room on the first day of the war. But all agreed that a collapse of order in the West Bank would only damage the ultimate goal of Palestinian statehood.

The plans were set: boost the guard near Rachel's Tomb and other sites Israelis visit, guard against possible snipers shooting at the Jewish settlement of Gilo, put Palestinian intelligence agents on overtime to keep in touch with sources, and call in political party leaders to discourage incitement.

"As a security service, we were issued clear instructions: Any expression of opposition according to the law is allowed, anything else goes to court," Omran said. "We are not working on behalf of the Israelis, or on behalf of the Americans or the Arabs. Our work is clear: There is Palestinian law."