By KARIN LAUB
The Associated Press
JENIN, West Bank - 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, American-trained and steadily growing, ready for the real thing? 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.
The Associated Press, granted rare access to the recruits in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, heard complaints 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 Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. 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 2008, 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 around 3,600.
They have had their first real test in recent weeks, twice clashing with Hamas gunmen in the town of Qalqiliya. Five Hamas fighters and four members of the security forces were killed.
The West Bank's various security forces already number some 24,000 Palestinians including police. These forces were troubled in the past by corruption, overlapping mandates, poor training and damaging Israeli raids, and in recent years there have been repeated attempts to reform them.
The new force is different, says Dayton.
"What we have created are new men," he told a Washington think tank last month. "For the first time, I think it's fair to say that the Palestinian security forces feel they are on a winning team."
Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, a senior aide to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, told the same forum that the new forces, most of them drawn straight from high school, are doing a good job. "It's not quite that they can assume full security responsibility, but we are on the right way," he said. "And for the first time, I see some sense of professional pride there that we've never seen in these forces."
Dayton calls them a "gendarmerie," a definition that would sidestep any argument with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants the future Palestinian state to be demilitarized.
Such a state is supposed to include the Gaza Strip, but that union has been cast into doubt since Abbas lost Gaza to a Hamas takeover two years ago. Hamas also has a strong West Bank presence, and Abbas has been cracking down, arresting hundreds of its activists, drying up their funding and shutting down their institutions.
In Jenin, members of the third U.S.-trained battalion seemed to have a clear sense of purpose, saying their mission was to help build a Palestinian state and fight "outlaws." None referred to Hamas by name.
Yet they expressed frustration about the lack of protective vests, helmets, rubber bullets and smoke bombs.
"We don't want promises. We want something tangible," said Mahmoud Khateeb, deputy commander of the third battalion that completed training in Jordan in January and deployed in Jenin and other northern towns - Tulkarem, Qalqiliya and Nablus.
In the live-fire exercise, 15 of Khateeb's commandos, along with members of other security branches, surrounded an abandoned two-story building on a hill just outside Jenin, with the mission to overpower two "gunmen" inside.
Israel was notified since the drill involved live fire, and pilotless Israeli aircraft hovered above.
At their barracks in Jenin, the troops from the third battalion live at least 14 to a trailer packed with bunk beds. Ahmed Salahat, 20, rested on a bed after the drill. Asked how he felt about having Hamas for an enemy, said he felt the Islamic militants have no compunction about firing on fellow Palestinians.
The Qalqiliya shootouts were the first deadly confrontations in the two-year crackdown on Hamas, and they shook up the men. Salahat said he's now more concerned about his safety.
Col. Rade Asedeh, the Jenin district commander, said his troops are only permitted to carry pistols and Russian-made Kalashnikov assault rifles, while Hamas fighters have American-made M16s, grenades, explosives and other weapons. Some of his men use M16s seized from Hamas.
Asedeh said protective vests, helmets and rubber bullets paid for by donor countries lie in storage in Egypt and Jordan, waiting for Israeli import permission. Also, 50 Russian-made armored personnel carriers, which he said were badly needed, have not been allowed in. The pistols and assault rifles come from members of the older Palestinian security agencies.
Dayton, whose team includes British, Canadian and Turkish officers, noted in his Washington speech that the U.S. only gives the force non-lethal equipment.
"We don't provide anything to the Palestinians unless it has been thoroughly coordinated with the state of Israel and they agree to it," he said.
"Sometimes this process drives me crazy - I had a lot more hair when I started - but nevertheless, we make it work."
The Israeli military said the vast majority of equipment requests are approved, security considerations permitting. It would not elaborate.
Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Abbas has been trying to assert more security control in West Bank towns, and Jenin has been held up as a success story. Once a militant stronghold, the town was now deemed safe enough for a visit last year by Condoleezza Rice, then U.S. secretary of state.
But Asedeh, the Jenin commander, said he still has to coordinate with Israel if his forces want to travel beyond the town's limits to any of its 86 surrounding villages. He also said Israeli troops routinely enter Jenin for arrest raids.
The purpose of these raids, said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator, is "to undermine the credibility of our security forces and their ability to function, to avoid withdrawing" from Palestinian cities.
Dayton, however, said Israeli generals seem eager to see his force take over. He said they have been asking him "How many more of these new Palestinians can you generate, and how quickly? Because they are our way to leave the West Bank."
Michael Oren, the new Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said based on past experience, Israel has to move cautiously.
"So by re-creating a Palestinian police force - training it along American methods, providing it with weaponry - we are taking a risk," Oren said. "The issue is confidence-building ... we're proceeding very cautiously, but proceeding."