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, US-trained and steadily growing, ready for the real thing? US 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.
Recruits in the northern West Bank town of Jenin complain 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.
However, on Thursday Israel announced it was easing its grip to allow the forces to operate round the clock in four West Bank towns, but added that Israeli forces would continue to operate in the West Bank “to thwart terrorist operations.”
At the same time, Hamas’ dislike of the new force was evident in a statement from Khaled Mashaal, its exiled leader, appealing to Obama to remove Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, the US security coordinator in the region, under whose auspices the force is being trained.
Mashaal claimed Dayton was “building an oppressive authority over the heads of our people.”
The new forces are being trained in neighboring Jordan. Since last year, 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 about 3,600.