Nablus is key to success of upcoming Middle East peace talks

NABLUS, West Bank — Beefy, burly and full of bravado, Alaa Taha Yassin rested his hands on the butt of his new machine gun and tried to sound like a tough talking, modern day Palestinian Joe Friday as he looked out on passing cars.

"Our mission is this:" said the 24-year-old, a pine baton the size of a baseball bat strapped to his back. "Wherever there is trouble, we go."

Yassin's boast may be a lot of bluster. But what he does on the streets of Nablus may be central to the success or failure of the Bush administration's upcoming Middle East peace talks.

Yassin is one of 300 newly trained Palestinian Authority foot soldiers at the forefront of a U.S.-backed, two-week-old Baghdad-style "surge" meant to bring a new sense of security to one of the West Bank's most volatile cities.

After the dramatic disintegration of U.S.-led efforts to build a reliable Palestinian military that ended with the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June, the focus has now turned toward rebuilding a police force in the West Bank.

"This is where the Palestinian state will get its first real test," Lt. Gen.

Keith Dayton, the veteran soldier leading America's campaign to create a trustworthy Palestinian military, told reporters during a visit to Nablus late last month.

But a week into the challenge, troubles quickly emerged.

During an hours-long standoff at a Palestinian refugee camp last week, militant gunmen refused to surrender their weapons or let the Palestinian Authority patrols in. Israeli forces staged a midnight raid that made it clear that the Palestinian Authority still does not have full control, respect or power. And the police themselves admit that they have little interest in going after militants whose target is Israel.

"It's a recipe for failure," said Yoni Fighel, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, an independent Israeli think tank. "Who is the authority on the ground and who do the people see as their protectors? The Israelis? The Palestinians? Both? Neither?"

Creating a respected Palestinian security force is central to the Bush administration's Road Map for peace. Israel and the U.S. view a reliable Palestinian security force as the biggest thing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can do to establish his credibility in the weeks leading up to a planned Annapolis peace conference at month's end.

"This is the Achilles heel," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "If this isn't taken care of seriously, this peace process will be stillborn."

Israel and the U.S. would like to see the beefed up Palestinian forces tackle two tough challenges: Militants who target Israel, and Hamas fighters who might want to seize control of the West Bank.

To aid in that effort, the Bush administration plans to announce a new plan this week to pump $1 million into civilian projects to shore up the security plan.

"The U.S. is satisfied with the effort that the Palestinian security services are making in Nablus and we are embarking on a series of immediate civilian assistance projects to try and assist in the effort to bring security to Nablus," said Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.

With their Chinese-made AK-47s, pine batons, and wrinkle-free drab olive uniforms, recruits like Yassin are setting up check points and planning missions to rout this West Bank city of "rascals."

"I have a list of the true resistance fighters and names of about 150 rascals," Yassin said. "Real resistance fighters we don't target."

The operation at the Balata Refugee Camp showed the problems. The goal was to arrest a renegade militant. Instead, it became an hours-long standoff that sent panicked camp residents scattering. Two militants eventually surrendered to police.

Mohammed Issa was sitting in his cramped, one-room grocery store during the showdown when he saw an innocent bystander take a bullet in the arm.

"I'm for the security plan," Issa said as one of his friends, an off-duty member of the Nablus police force, sat by his side. "But I'm not for shooting innocent people. Everyone looks down at the Palestinian Authority for its actions."

Balata, the largest refugee camp in the West Bank, is likely to be the biggest proving ground for the new security plan.

The camp and its 21,000 residents are divided among rival factions, gangs and militants who've vowed not to let anyone take their weapons.

On one recent afternoon, several members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade sat drinking muddy coffee on the edge of Balata as Palestinian security forces stood watch a few hundreds yards up the road.

"They can only come in if they come talk to us," said one 27-year old militant who refused to give his name because he's wanted by the Israeli military.

The militant said that Al Aqsa would back any attempt to round up criminals. But the militants won't give up their weapons as long as Israeli soldiers continue to stage nightly West Bank raids.

One of the biggest concerns is that Palestinian forces must cede control of the streets to Israeli soldiers between midnight and six in the morning.

"The Israelis haven't withdrawn, why should we?" said the militant.

Israel didn't wait long to demonstrate its continued power in Nablus.

Just after midnight on Wednesday, Israeli forces moved into Balata in search of a wanted Al Aqsa militant. The soldiers took over the militant's family home, forced the frightened family members into a cramped room for hours and then blew up the house before retreating at dawn.

Nearly two dozen people were arrested. The operation reportedly prompted the Bush administration to privately criticize Israel for potentially undercutting the fledging security operation — a feeling echoed in the narrow dirt refugee camp streets.

"The people don't feel like the Palestinian police are protecting them,"

Raed Qabi said as relatives nearby pulled blankets, toys, cooking pots and a microwave oven from the wreckage of his home. "The power of the police ends the minute Israel comes in."

Israel understands the risks of staging such raids, Foreign Ministry spokesman Regev said. But the Israeli military is worried that Hamas and other militants looking to topple Abbas could seize control of the West Bank if it pulls back now.

"If we cease our operations and there is a security vacuum, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and other groups will move into that vacuum, you will have a new wave of violence and the peace process will be off track before it even gets started," he said.

Hours after Israeli forces pulled back, no police forces had come to check on the situation. On the outskirts of the camp, a Palestinian bomb disposal team — with European Union advisors looking on — searched a neighborhood where Israeli forces said they'd left some unexploded stun grenades.

A frustrated Palestinian Authority captain sniffed a spent grenade as the team prepared to move out without finding anything dangerous.

"We have no power," said Capt. Samhar, who declined to give his last name before rushing off. "We can't do anything."