Palestinian Recruits Hit Streets Unprepared

By Griff Witte and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 3, 2008

RAMALLAH, West Bank, May 2 -- The first class of Palestinian security officers trained under a multimillion-dollar U.S. program to strengthen the Palestinian Authority is deploying to one of the West Bank's most restive cities without promised supplies of body armor, helmets or even flashlights after Israel blocked a shipment of equipment.

The shortage in U.S.-funded supplies threatens the Palestinian government's ability to provide security in the West Bank, which Israel has made a condition of future withdrawals from the occupied territories. There have also been significant problems with the training, including a final round that one American involved in the program described as "a complete fiasco."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrives in the region this weekend, has said the training program is an essential part of the Bush administration's push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement before it leaves office in January.

But Israel has traditionally viewed Palestinian security forces as potential adversaries, even though this training class is affiliated with the moderate Palestinian government that serves as the Jewish state's counterpart in peace talks. In this case, Israel failed to approve delivery of the requested supplies in time for the deployment, according to senior Palestinian officials.

A Western security official familiar with the aid program said the list was submitted months ago and included only nonlethal items. As a result, hundreds of newly trained Palestinian security officers will arrive in Jenin as early as this weekend -- the first big test of their nascent security capabilities -- without a promised infusion of uniforms, first-aid kits or protective gear.

"If we come under fire, we will have to take the bullets with our chests without any kind of protection," said Lt. Col. Nidal Abu Dukhan, commander of the battalion being deployed to Jenin. "We don't have helmets and body armor because the Israelis are against these things."

As Dukhan prepared to lead his forces to Jenin, one of his main concerns was getting them there. He had only 10 unarmored Volkswagen vans, each of which seats 10 people. He planned to deploy with 300 men.

Israel has frequently criticized the Palestinian Authority, run by the relatively moderate Fatah party, for not doing enough to combat armed groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad that have pledged to eradicate Israel. Israeli officials said their military forces cannot withdraw from the West Bank -- occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war -- until the Palestinian Authority proves it can take control.

Last summer, the U.S. Congress approved $28 million for an initial program to train and equip roughly 1,000 men as part of an $86 million appropriation for Palestinian security. But the training program has been beset by delays and a shortage of resources.

Much of the training equipment -- including vehicles, two-way radios, dummy pistols, rifles and batons -- arrived after the first training sessions had begun. Israel also placed restrictions on the kind of equipment and curriculum available to the Palestinian trainees.

The first 430 to be trained, members of the Presidential Guard, returned to the West Bank from Jordan in April. Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials chose as their initial testing ground Jenin, a city and sprawling refugee camp of about 50,000 people that was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the most recent Palestinian uprising.

In a visit to Jerusalem this spring, Rice spoke of making Jenin a model for Palestinian self-sufficiency and economic development. She was due to arrive in Jerusalem on Saturday to promote the administration's peace plans.

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