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The quiet, controversial partnership between the Israeli and Palestinian police chiefs

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — When Palestinian police discovered a torched car with Israeli license plates near the West Bank city of Hebron this summer, they immediately suspected foul play. It was only later that afternoon, however, that they learned that the abandoned vehicle was the first piece of evidence in the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the area, according to Maj. Gen. Hazim Attallah, the Palestinian police chief.

The force then passed that information along to Israeli authorities, in what was the first step in Palestinian police work that helped Israeli authorities identify the land where the bodies of the youths, who were allegedly killed by Palestinian militants, were buried.

To those outside the security agencies, it may come as a surprise that Palestinian and Israeli police continued working closely throughout the tense summer, when the Israeli military swept the occupied West Bank in search of the teens and the suspects and war broke out in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. But in recent interviews with The Washington Post, the chiefs of both forces said their sometimes controversial relationship — forged in secret meetings over the past two years — continues today, even as East Jerusalem seethes with clashes.

The information about the abandoned car “gave us a very good start in the case,” said the Israeli police commissioner, Inspector General Yohanan Danino, adding that Palestinian police also supplied Israel with video footage of the vehicle’s movements inside Palestinian areas.

Last weekend, the D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, which initially brought the two men together, recognized their cooperation with a leadership award. They shared it with Jordanian Interior Minister Gen. Hussein al-Majali, who facilitated the Israeli-Palestinian chiefs’ interaction and directed Jordanian police to work with the Israelis and the Palestinians to fight cross-border smuggling and crime.

Contrary to the beliefs of many Israelis, Danino said the Palestinian police force worked diligently to assist in solving the killing of the three teens, who had been abducted while hitchhiking home from their seminaries in the West Bank. Members of a small Hamas cell were implicated in the crime; two of the alleged kidnappers were killed by Israeli security forces during an exchange of gunfire when the pair were tracked to a woodworking shop in Hebron three months later.

The often-quiet role that Palestinian police play in aiding Israeli security is an especially thorny topic in the West Bank, where many residents are angry with the Palestinian Authority for what they see as its part in maintaining the Israeli military occupation. Palestinian police have jurisdiction only in what is known as Area A of the West Bank, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. More than half of the West Bank, known as Area C, is under full Israeli military control, although Israeli police operate there, too. The remainder is patrolled by both police agencies in coordination with each other.

Attallah said his force of 8,000 was under intense pressure through the summer, especially as the Israeli army carried out its search for the teens and the suspects by entering many Palestinian-controlled areas for the first time since the second Palestinian intifada 10 years ago.

“We still had to do our job serving and protecting the public. But how could we when there was a military curfew?” Attallah said. He said he instructed his officers to don civilian clothing so they could continue their work alongside the Israeli military operation.

Despite the barriers, the two police chiefs said they have formed a personal and professional rapport.

“We are doing almost the same job. Policing is the same everywhere. We are all focusing on the safety of our people,” the Palestinian police chief said. “We are not discussing political issues; we are discussing the problems of road safety, crime and other issues that affect everybody here in this region.”

The two police chiefs say that although there was interaction in the past — mostly in the late-1990s, after the Oslo peace agreement — now it is occurring at a senior, more strategic level.

They said top members of each force meet regularly to share intelligence on drug-smuggling operations and car-theft rings, as well as trying to tame reckless driving in areas where both Palestinians and Israeli settlers live.

The Israeli police chief, whose 29,000-officer force has faced charges of corruption and sexual harassment, as well as criticism of heavy-handedness in dealing with Palestinian civil unrest, used the example of Interpol – a global policing organization — to describe his partnership with the Palestinians.

“We pass them the information they need, and they help us, too,” he said. But he added that when Israeli national security enters the picture, “it gets more complicated.”

Describing a fatal accident last year involving a Palestinian driver who fled the scene after killing an Israeli motorist, Danino recalled that the first question was whether it was an accident or an intentional killing that Israel might consider a “terrorist” attack.

“I called General Attallah, and we reached an agreement whereby he would bring the driver to us, we would interview him and determine if it had been on purpose. If not, we would send him back to the Palestinians to face trial,” Danino said. In the end, the fatality was ruled an accident.

Both chiefs pointed to their cooperation as evidence that the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be solvable. But it requires one thing, they said: trust.

“If we can do this at this level, then there is a way for [Israelis and Palestinians] to get there in other areas, too,” Danino said.

Attallah echoed that.

“We have helped many Israelis, including soldiers who end up in our areas by mistake. They are immediately handed back to the Israeli authorities, and never once has a round of bullets gone missing from their guns,” he said.

“If that is not proof of trust, what more is needed?” he said.