An aggressive new effort by the Palestinian Authority to impose law and order in the restive city of Jenin — long a militant stronghold where lawlessness prevailed — is being met by resentment from some Palestinians and skepticism from Israelis.
Some 600 newly trained Palestinian soldiers and police have just deployed on the streets of the northern West Bank city as part of an American and European Union-backed plan to improve security, bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' West Bank government and encourage an eventual Israeli military pullback.
The myriad Palestinian security forces — police, presidential guard and national security force — are now working together, coordinating operations and deploying proactively in the streets day and night.
All are new concepts for Palestinian security forces in Jenin, as is zero tolerance for lawbreakers. And Palestinians from armed militants to farmers are looking warily at the newly empowered Palestinian forces.
Mideast envoy Tony Blair and American and European diplomats are hoping these new Palestinian security efforts in Jenin and nearby Nablus build trust so Israel eventually will turn more security responsibility in the West Bank over to the Palestinian Authority. Its rule now extends only to the West Bank after the Islamist militant group Hamas violently took control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in June 2007.
The idea now is to turn the northern West Bank into a "model security area" and let Palestinians prove that they are serious about reining in militants and imposing order, key obligations under the long stalled U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
Israeli Interference a 'Key Stumbling Block'
The Palestinians will open three new police stations next week in the northern West Bank after Israel granted them permission to deploy there.
But the Palestinians still have to coordinate with Israel — essentially get permission — before carrying out operations in areas outside the city's limits. And the Israeli army still maintains overall security control throughout the area. Israeli troops can come into the city at any time and make arrests.
The Palestinian deputy commander of the Jenin security force, Col. Raadi Ahseedee, says Israeli interference remains the key stumbling block in the campaign.
"During this campaign, coordination with the Israeli security forces has been better, for sure," Ahseedee says. "But they still embarrass us all the time. We secure an area during the day and at night the Israelis sweep in as they like."
He complains that not a single major Israeli checkpoint has come down since the Palestinian Authority launched its West Bank security plan earlier this year.
Some Israeli security officials are deeply skeptical of handing over security control. Israeli Maj. Oz Arad, a military police commander in the northern West Bank, says he is not convinced the Palestinian security forces are ready to handle wider responsibilities.
"I'm not sure they can control what's going on in the streets," Arad says. "I'm not saying they cannot. But to do the job we do every day, I'm not sure the Palestinians can. I think it's too early."
Resentment from Palestinians Palpable
First Lt. Ossama Shirbeani with the Palestinian Special Police Force insists support in Jenin for the new crackdown is widespread. "Some kids throw rocks at us in the refugee camps," he concedes, "but only the teenagers really defy us."
"There's a new generation of kids who grew up in a state of chaos and under Israeli occupation. All they know is disorder and a weak Palestinian Authority," he says. "These youngsters have been the biggest challenge to us."
But it appears resentment at the new security campaign runs deeper than that.
From the window of his small grocery store, Jenin shopkeeper Sami Atay watches Palestinian security forces search cars at a checkpoint.
"They're just like the Jews," Atay says, dismissing the crackdown as a partisan show of force by the ruling Fatah movement. "They're only arresting those who are harming Fatah, men from Hamas and Islamic Jihad and other enemies of Fatah," Atay says. "The burglars and criminals and murders are still in the streets."
The Palestinian Authority denies that its security crackdown has a partisan bias.
Balancing Law and Order and Compassion for Poor
At on security checkpoint, Mohammed Zakarni, a 35-year-old stonecutter, is detained because his bedraggled Subaru is unregistered and unfit to be on the road. Security operations commander Mustapha Shenowee tells him his car will have to be confiscated.
Zakarni, a father of four, is demoralized. He says he makes about $25 a day cutting stones at a Jenin quarry.
"I say if the Palestinian Authority wants to improve law and order, OK, fair enough. But improve the economic situation for the people, too. I can't afford a good car," Zakarni says. "Now they take away the car I need for work. What shall I do?"
Shenowee barks an order into a hand-held radio and walks away.
"We can have compassion for the poor or we can have law and order, but I don't think we can have both," he says.