Correction to This Article
The article referred to Gilo as a Jewish settlement. It is a Jewish neighborhood built on land captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and annexed to Israel as part of Jerusalem's expanded municipal boundaries. The United Nations has not acknowledged the annexation.

For Palestinian Forces, a Growing Role in West Bank

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 26, 2009

QALQILYAH, West Bank -- It began with the smell of smoke at the Ayyoub al-Ansari mosque and a routine call to the local fire department, but over the next six weeks, it developed into a full-fledged counterterrorism operation.

Palestinian security officials, who joined firefighters at the scene, noticed an oddly placed stairwell and found that it led to an underground room stocked with chemicals, guns and a ready-to-go explosives vest. Follow-up arrests and investigation helped uncover a militant safe house and led to a climactic gun battle in late May in which two men from the Islamist Hamas movement -- who had long eluded Israeli capture -- died in a hail of Palestinian fire, according to Palestinian, U.S. and Israeli officials. Three police officers and another resident of the house were also killed.

The fight last month in this northern West Bank town has emerged as a potential turning point in cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security officials, a relationship central to the future emergence of a Palestinian state. Palestinian police and security forces have assumed increasing control over towns in the occupied West Bank, a process that took a significant step forward Thursday when Israel agreed to limit military incursions in four major Palestinian cities.

Amid a marked decline in violence in and emanating from the West Bank, the Israel Defense Forces said its troops would no longer enter Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho and Qalqilyah unless there are "urgent security needs." The agreement, struck at a Palestinian command center outside Bethlehem where commanders from the two sides gathered on Wednesday night, authorizes Palestinian police and security troops to remain in control of the four cities 24 hours a day. They had previously pulled back between midnight and 5 a.m. to avoid "friendly fire" encounters with IDF patrols.

The agreement stops short of recent demands by Palestinian officials that the IDF pull back fully from "area A" -- the mostly urban territory that, under the 1993 Oslo accords, was put under the authority of Palestinian forces. The Oslo arrangement unraveled beginning in 2000 when a violent intifada, or uprising, led the IDF to reestablish control over the entire West Bank and surround Palestinian cities with checkpoints and barriers.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Israel should move more quickly to bolster Palestinian control in the West Bank -- and prove that cooperation will show results more effectively than the confrontational approach taken by the Hamas movement. Hamas, in control of the Gaza Strip, has criticized Palestinian security efforts in the West Bank for helping Israel, and said that its members have borne the brunt of policing efforts.

"We have a domestic constituency, too," Fayyad said in an interview last week. "We need to carry people with us in this process."

The changes announced Thursday reinforce a step-by-step approach that Israeli military officials say will minimize the risk of a major attack that could set back progress. Israeli military and political officials say their intelligence and other operations laid a foundation that Palestinian forces have built on but are not yet ready to assume full control over.

In recent months, Israel has lifted some of the central checkpoints it had established around West Bank cities. At Wednesday's meeting, the Israelis agreed to curtail inspections at others and begin removing some of the concrete blocks and other barriers to movement in the West Bank, according to a Palestinian commander who was present.

IDF raids are still common, particularly in flash-point cities such as Hebron and Nablus -- a fact Fayyad said undermines Palestinian credibility more than it helps Israel's security. But Israeli commanders say they are now trying to reduce the IDF presence in the West Bank as Palestinian forces increase theirs.

"We've started to see change. Less terror. More law and order," said a senior Israeli military source. Palestinian Authority forces "fought Hamas terrorists in Qalqilyah, terrorists that we were looking for. They killed them, and they lost some people. They have the will to win. To protect their country."

The assessment stands in contrast to the situation in the Gaza Strip, where rocket and mortar fire by Hamas and other militant groups into Israel triggered a three-week war in December and January, and a tightened Israeli blockade of the area.

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