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Security Returns To The West Bank Town Of Nablus

Security Returns to the West Bank Town of Nablus

"This is a first, important step toward the Palestinian Authority taking security in the Palestinian Territories," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told reporters during his first official visit to the West Bank town of Nablus.

Prior to the new security plan, which took effect in late summer and culminated with the deployment of the new elite forces November 2, Nablus was considered too risky for the prime minister to enter. It had become a safe haven for armed thugs who robbed and blackmailed residents with impunity. Skinny gunmen in their 20s menaced each other's territory in gang turf wars when not battling Israeli troops.

But that is changing. Some 300 members of a special Palestinian Authority National Security Force equipped with new Kalashnikov assault rifles and wearing immaculate olive-green uniforms now cruise the streets of Nablus in soft-top jeeps, setting up checkpoints and arresting common criminals. Another 200 professionally trained elite police are due to join them in the near future.

These policemen have been training for months in Jericho, a West Bank oasis town northeast of Jerusalem. Now, they must impose law and order in the restive town of Nablus, better known for its carjackings and gang shooting sprees. Crime, protection rackets and the settling of scores have plunged this former commercial and educational hub into fear and chaos in the last seven years.

If crime is curbed and streets become safer in this prominent West Bank university town, Western diplomats believe it will increase the pressure on Palestinian militants to disarm, a key step in the road map to peace in the region. Progress at the upcoming international peace meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, is more likely if Palestinian security forces demonstrate that they can rein in armed gangs and anarchy in Nablus.

The Palestinian Authority also stands to gain stature if its leadership enforces its sovereignty in a place that has flouted authority. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has vowed to bring personal security for ordinary Palestinian citizens, and Israeli officials demand improved security as a prerequisite for progress on political talks. Bringing law and order to the mean streets of Nablus is a win-win situation for the Palestinian Authority.

And the residents of Nablus are seeing progress. Traffic anarchy in the city center recently eased when police forcibly removed illegal commercial stalls blocking streets near the old clock tower. And residents say they are beginning to feel safer walking the streets. Residents believe a crackdown on crime and graft will make daily life more viable.

Kessem Majeed, a middle-aged confectioner, praises the improvement. "Before, my neighbors' shops got robbed, and sometimes there was shooting," he said. "No one did anything. But now if you call the police they will be here in five minutes."

General Keith Dayton, the United States security coordinator responsible for beefing up security in the region, believes that success in Nablus will send a message to other West Bank trouble spots.

"I believe strongly that Palestinian families deserve to raise their children in a secure environment free of lawlessness and free of fear," Dayton said.

"I have high regard for those in the Palestinian Security Forces who work every day to end chaos and strive to build a society based on the rule of law."


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