Josef Federman
Associated Press
February 9, 2010 - 1:00am

The security men brandished their weapons and ordered the suspicious car to halt, forcing the occupants to get out and put their hands in their air. The suspects were quickly handcuffed, frisked and made to kneel on the ground as the vehicle was swept for explosives.

The crackdown, carried out by elite Palestinian forces at a training base on the outskirts of this dusty West Bank town, was only a simulation for a small group of visitors. But the men carrying out this show of force — the result of months of U.S.-sponsored training — are already at the vanguard of Palestinian attempts to lay the groundwork for an independent state.

Maj. Gen. Diab el-Ali, commander of the National Security Forces, said the roughly 8,000 men under his command have helped restore law and order in an area that just a few years ago was overrun by armed vigilantes and bloody fighting with Israel.

Although his men suffer from a dire lack of weapons and equipment and are hobbled by Israel's military occupation, he insisted his forces could maintain peace in the West Bank if Israel withdrew from the area tomorrow. "I guarantee it," he said in a rare meeting with foreign journalists.

The National Security Forces are one of six Palestinian security agencies policing the West Bank under the command of President Mahmoud Abbas.

It operates checkpoints, performs crowd control and is on the front lines with Israel, coordinating its movements in an uneasy working relationship with the Israeli army. Issues like police work, civil defense and intelligence gathering are left to other agencies.

The performance of the force is being closely watched and could have important implications for peacemaking. Its members, unlike their counterparts in other agencies, receive training from police in neighboring Jordan under a U.S.-funded program supervised by the American Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton.

More than 2,600 Palestinians have participated in the four- and five-month courses, which include training in such areas as riot control, controlling civil disturbances and respect for human rights.

Success could gain the confidence of the Israelis, who remain hesitant about yielding security responsibilities to the Palestinians after years of violence.

The initial signs are positive. The force has assumed security control over five towns and cities, and a sixth battalion is being trained in Jordan. The criminal gangs that once roamed Palestinian streets have disappeared, and the economy has begun to recover.

El-Ali said that in the past two years, there have been no cases of Palestinian security men attacking Israeli targets. During Israel's invasion of the Gaza Strip last year, his forces prevented street demonstrations in the West Bank from spinning out of control. None of the graduates of the U.S. program have been caught up in petty crime — a problem in the past.

El-Ali's troops patrol only parts of the West Bank. The other Palestinian territory, Gaza, is under control of the Islamic militant Hamas, a bitter rival of el-Ali's forces, who are loyal to Abbas.

Monday's tour of a pair of training bases in Jericho showed how far the forces have come. A group of new recruits at one base appeared to be inexperienced, wearing mismatched uniforms, sneakers and occasionally marching out of step.

In contrast, at a nearby battalion headquarters, the Jordan-trained troops appeared to be professional and disciplined. Uniformed soldiers marched and jogged neatly in formation. A line of troops with fake wooden rifles carried out a mock assault on a building, while other troops set up the simulated checkpoint.

Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk, has publicly praised the performance of the newly trained Palestinian security men, though he says more work needs to be done.

El-Ali, 66, who once battled Israel as a Palestinian commander in Lebanon and also spent six years in a Syrian prison, acknowledged his relationship with the Israelis is difficult.

He said the presence of the Israeli military and dozens of Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank hinders his men from carrying out operations, and complained there aren't enough guns to arm his forces. He said the Palestinians possess only about 3,000 automatic weapons for more than 20,000 men across the various forces.

The army also continues to raid Palestinian-controlled areas for suspects it wants, often giving el-Ali little or no notice ahead of time.

"I feel uncomfortable when coordinating and cooperating with them. I tell these things to the Israelis," he said. "It's not easy, but there's nothing that we can do."

In one recent incident, Israel gunned down three suspects it held responsible for the shooting of a settler, shortly after el-Ali said he notified Israel the Palestinians were about to arrest the men. He accused Israel of trying to embarrass the Palestinians and said he suspects Israel used his information to find the men.

Despite his hesitations, he said his men are under "permanent" orders not to battle the Israelis and that he is committed to working for peace.

"There is no other choice. Peace is the only choice," he said.


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