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Despite massive obstacles, Mideast leaders commit to Israeli pullback

TULKAREM, West Bank—Israel treated Col. Maher Dweikat as a terrorist threat for the last four years. Today, Israel is counting on the 42-year-old Palestinian to protect its citizens.

Dweikat heads Tulkarem's Preventive Security Service. He, and his counterparts in the West Bank towns of Jericho, Ramallah, Qalqiliya and Bethlehem, soon will take over security as Israeli troops pull back in those towns. They're expected to do just what the Israeli soldiers tried to do: Stop Palestinian militants from attacking Israelis—in both Israel and the predominantly Palestinian West Bank.

Israeli and Palestinian politicians are negotiating the hand-over, in what could be an initial step in restoring peace.

It won't be easy, despite obvious commitment on both sides to make it work. Mistrust is high after more than four years of conflict that's claimed about 5,000 lives, mostly Palestinian.

The West Bank Palestinian security forces aren't fully prepared. After repeated attacks from Israeli troops, they're short of communications equipment, vehicles and training as well as workspace and jails.

Israel has doubts about whether Palestinian officers are committed to the new security arrangements. There's little doubt that Palestinian forces have been infiltrated by militants and are rife with corruption. Until the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in November, they'd answered only to him.

At the same time, Israeli leaders understand that they may have to take some risks. Only Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has the ability to bring reform. Reform under Israeli pressure would lead security forces to be branded "collaborators" with Israel, said retired Israeli Maj. Gen. Shlomo Gazit, a strategic analyst and former head of military intelligence.

As for Palestinians, few if any security officers believe Israel is committed to reducing its military stranglehold on the West Bank. Some security officers fought in the past four years alongside militants as Palestinian "resistance fighters," and they're hesitant about the prospect of arresting or killing those men if they don't fall in line with the emerging Israeli-Palestinian detente.

Brig. Gen. Ziad Hab al Rih, the commander of the West Bank Preventive Security Services, said that hesitancy was easy to understand, since Palestinians elected Abbas in January to promote dialogue and unity among Palestinians and not to bow to Israeli demands to disarm and disband armed Palestinian factions.

"Civil war or internal fighting is a red line we will not cross," Hab al Rih added. "But (for militants) to violate Palestinian law is also a red line, and we'll deal with it."

Despite the mistrust, the obstacles and the uncertainty, Israelis and Palestinians know they must take this step and more if this shaky truce is to lead to the next step, negotiations for a lasting peace.

"The distrust is very high, yet you only make peace with your enemy," said Maj. Sharon Feingold, a senior Israeli military spokeswoman.

Hab al Rih echoed the idea. "Peace is between enemies, not friends," he said.

The two sides have been negotiating for weeks over what seems like a baby step in the bigger scheme of things: the hand-over of the first West Bank city, Jericho. They can't agree over how much ground the Israeli military should cede to its Palestinian counterparts.

Palestinian officials argue that Israel must do more than just keep out of Palestinian cities. The move is meaningless, they say, if the cities remain cut off from surrounding Palestinian villages and towns by Israeli checkpoints and patrols. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz insists that the checkpoints remain as a safety net for Israeli citizens in West Bank settlements and in Israel.

Yet the checkpoints prevent Palestinian security forces from doing their job. Those forces have an estimated 41,000 officers in the West Bank and predominantly Palestinian Gaza Strip, and their jurisdictions are established by governorate—similar to a county—rather than by city. Under the current Israeli withdrawal proposal, the forces would be cut off from large swaths of population, who if left unchecked could jeopardize the emerging Israeli-Palestinian security arrangement.

In the border city of Tulkarem, Dweikat and police commander Col. Mohammed Taher Jabar said, the governorate's 1,800 security and police officers wouldn't have access to 1 in 5 of the 100,000 Palestinians they're responsible for. One of the governorate's villages, al Ram, is cut off from Tulkarem by the security barrier Israel is building along the West Bank.

Despite this, the commanders say they're committed to keeping the peace as Abbas has demanded. They've replaced eight police cars and two motorcycles that Israeli tanks and armored vehicles destroyed over the past four years. Officers now use cell phones in lieu of radios, which were destroyed or confiscated along with the rest of their communications system, Jabar said.

Jabar plans to maintain law and order by sending nine mobile patrols to encircle Tulkarem and conduct spot-checks on suspicious vehicles. Police officers will be able to carry arms again, and that'll go a long way toward keeping things quiet, he added.

Dweikat said that even during the past four years, when Israel forbade Palestinian security officers from carrying weapons, his preventive security officers had been doing their jobs. They operated out of 12 secret apartments across the governorate, he said.

"I'm sure we won't have any problems with the Palestinian factions," said Dweikat, referring to militant groups such as the Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad. "They think in a practical way."

He added: "There is a personal language and understanding, a mutual friendship and respect" for the militants.

Under a plan Abbas has endorsed, some militants who belong to factions that are loyal to the Palestinian Authority ultimately could be absorbed into the security forces.

At some point, Palestinian security officers will begin enforcing the law that prevents Palestinians from openly carrying weapons, the Tulkarem commanders said. But Dweikat said he had no plans for house-to-house searches to confiscate weapons.

He said he'd spent seven years in Israeli jails for "activities against Israelis," and wouldn't say whether he and his 200 men fought Israelis over the past four years.

During the first months of the conflict, an Israeli tank machine gun fired 22 bullets into his green Hyundai as he drove from Tulkarem to the northern West Bank city of Nablus, Dweikat recalled. He added that his headquarters was destroyed by Israeli missiles early in 2002 while he was meeting there with 100 of his officers, some of whom were injured.

One of Dweikat's men was killed when his car exploded during an Israeli attack. A number of his officers are imprisoned in Israeli jails.

"We don't feel the Israeli army acted like human beings in their actions. They are the killer of the injured and children," Dweikat said.

Nevertheless, he and other Palestinian security officers said they were setting aside personal feelings for the sake of peace.

"We realize chaos will destroy everything," Dweikat said. "Palestinian society is in as much need for security as it is in need of bread and water."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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