September 10, 2008 - 8:00pm,2506,L-3...

A new chapter in the history of the biblical town of Hebron is being inscribed in a Palestinian police blotter.

The record shows that in August Palestinian police arrested 139 people on suspicion of crimes ranging from murder, drug dealing and illegal arms trading. Nearly 700 traffic tickets were handed out.

After years of rule by gunmen in the Palestinian side of the divided city in the occupied West Bank, some 400 pistol-toting Palestinian policemen in blue uniforms are beginning to make a difference, residents said.

"I feel the security conditions have improved. I feel safer now walking the streets and there are fewer armed conflicts," Umm Nidal, a 49-year-old housewife, told Reuters.

Shopkeeper Mahmoud Oweida said the armed men who dominated life in Hebron were off the streets and the sound of gunfire had disappeared.

Six months ago, Palestinian policemen started implementing a Western-backed security plan in the part of Hebron assigned to Palestinian control under interim Palestinian-Israeli peace deals.

Not everyone is pleased by the deployment.

Residents of the Palestinian controlled area have long turned to local tribal leaders to settle disputes and clamp down on crime. Their role grew in importance after a Palestinian uprising began in 2000 and Israel destroyed the Palestinian security infrastructure in the West Bank.

"Our tribal laws complement the laws of the government but the police force cannot replace our role," said Zuheir Maraqa, the most influential clan leader in the Hebron area.

Hebron's Israeli-controlled section, where about 650 Jewish settlers protected by Israeli soldiers live in the midst of around 30,000 Palestinians, is off-limits to Palestinian police.

'We waged a security campaign'

Under a 1997 Hebron agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, they can enter only after coordination with Israeli authorities that is difficult to obtain.

"The Israeli soldiers care less about our complaints. Our conditions have worsened as a result of attacks by settlers. There's no-one to protect us here," said 72-year-old Ragheb Jaber.

Hebron's Old City, in the Israeli-controlled sector, has often been a flashpoint of violence between settlers and Palestinians.

"We have succeeded in some areas but being prevented from working in the (Israeli-controlled) area has been a major obstacle," said Ramadan Awad, chief of the Palestinian police in Hebron.

Security forces in the West Bank loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas received US and European aid after Hamas Islamists seized the Gaza Strip in June 2007 and he sacked the Hamas-led government in response.

The well-equipped forces, trained in Jordan and funded by the United States and the European Union, have since been deployed, with Israel's approval, in the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin, where they have made inroads in restoring law and order.

"We wanted those forces to come to Hebron to help us but Israel has rejected our repeated requests to deploy police from outside Hebron," Awad said.

"So we waged a security campaign using the 400 local police and security men, armed only with pistols, to end the state of chaos," he said.

'Israeli authorities rejected my request'

Israeli officials have objected to a major Palestinian police deployment in the city on the grounds that proximity with Israeli forces and settlers would raise tensions.

Pia Haenni, a member of a European monitoring force, the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), noted a general improvement in the overall security situation in the city since the police deployment.

But she said regular Israeli army raids against suspected militants in the Palestinian-controlled area, the continuing influence of clan leaders and a lack of equipment for police were hampering the work of the local force.

Awad said his men were motivated by a sense of pride in their mission.

He recalled an incident several weeks ago that nearly led to a confrontation between Palestinian polices and Israeli soldiers in Hebron.

Israeli authorities, Awad said, had rejected his request to send members of his force to arrest Palestinians who had fled into the Israeli-run area after attacking policemen.

"So I took a police force of 150 men and went to the Old City," he said. "We were confronted by the Israeli army. They raised their guns in our faces and prevented us from proceeding."

Awad said the soldiers ultimately relented after a lengthy argument and police entered the Israeli-controlled area, where they arrested five wanted men, seized weapons, narcotics and stolen goods and destroyed a drug den in a four-hour operation.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017