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Palestinian Security Forces Return

By: United Press International (UPI)


TEL AVIV, Israel, June 29 (UPI) -- Israel's move to hand over security in four key West Bank cities to Palestinian forces is a major step forward for a U.S. training program that has become a vital element in President Barack Obama's drive to revive the Middle East peace process.

The program is headed Lt. Gen. Keith W. Dayton of the U.S. Army, a veteran of the Iraq war. Since he started his mission three years ago, he has been credited with rebuilding the Palestinian security forces that were devastated by the Israelis after the intifada, or uprising, began in September 2000.

That left the West Bank in chaos and prey to criminal gangs that became a law unto themselves. In June 2007 Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority and challenged the dominance of the mainstream Fatah movement.

The Americans reason that helping the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority regain control of security in the West Bank is a precondition for progress toward stability and resolution of the 60-year-old conflict with Israel. Regaining security control is seen as a major step in the tortuous process of establishing an independent Palestinian state.

"These guys now feel like they're on a winning team, that they're building a Palestinian state," Dayton said in February.

The Israelis withdrew from West Bank cities and towns following the 1993-94 Oslo Accords but reoccupied them after the intifada broke out in September 2000. But the Palestinian Authority has been pushing for another Israeli pullback so that Palestinian sovereignty can be reasserted.

The Israelis have been reluctant, in light of their experiences, to relinquish their control in the West Bank. But as the U.S.-trained forces started becoming operational and the level of violence was greatly reduced, the Americans put pressure on the Israeli government and military chiefs to limit their profile in the four cities unless there are "urgent security needs."

The cities are Ramallah, the political and commercial center in the West Bank, Qalqiliya, Bethlehem and Jericho. Similar moves have been made in Jenin and parts of Hebron, both flashpoint cities plagued by violence for years. At the same time, several Israeli checkpoints have been removed.

Dayton's instructors, in coordination with Israeli officers, have established a 1,800-man Presidential Guard at an 18-acre, $10 million, state-of-the-art college outside Jericho paid for by the United States.

Nearby is the 35-acre operations camp for the 15,000-man National Security Force, the largest of the security services, and a police training academy funded by the European Union. Some National Security Force troops, whose mission is police borders and provide military intelligence, have been trained in four-month U.S.-financed courses in Jordan.

The bewildering array of security services -- at one time there were 13 -- established by Yasser Arafat to keep his commanders at each other's throats rather than plotting to overthrow him has been scrapped and a more streamlined, unified system set up. This has gained considerable credibility with the Israelis.

Over the last few years four battalions of about 500 men each have been deployed in various cities and towns across the West Bank, reducing rampant crime and even the number of attacks against Israel. There are now biweekly conferences between Palestinian and Israeli officers, the first since the intifada began in 2000.

The Israelis have vetoed any of the Palestinian forces having heavy weapons, so for the time being they are restricted to automatic weapons.

When Israeli forces invaded Gaza in late December 2008 in a bid to crush Hamas, there were expectations that trouble would erupt in the West Bank in sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza. But the newborn Palestinian forces kept the lid on.

"None of these predictions came true," Dayton said in an address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in May. "What we have created are 'new men.'"

The general's assignment as U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority was due to end this summer. But Obama's Middle East envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, asked him to stay on for another two years. He agreed. In the minds of many, this was seen as an unofficial timetable towards the creation of a separate Palestinian entity.