Nablus Police Try to Assert Authority

In an effort to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian presidency, the United States and the European Union have backed a plan to deploy hundreds of police officers to the streets of the Nablus. But the police will have to reckon with armed militants and the Israeli army -– both major powers in the city.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

There's a new and welcome feature on the streets of the West Bank town of Nablus - Palestinian policeman. It's all part of a U.S. and European plan to bolster Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and his more moderate government. That government competes for Palestinian loyalty with the Islamist group Hamas, which took control of the Gaza Strip in June. There are enormous challenges for the police in Nablus; not least are militants and the Israeli army, which remains the major power in the city.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: For Nablus Police Lieutenant Afrafi Sharkeih(ph), enforcing the new security plan here means a get-tough approach with even minor offenders.

(Soundbite of street)

WESTERVELT: The officer pulls over a taxi van that ran a stop sign and issues the driver a stern warning.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) Understand that the old days of chaos are over. From now on, in Nablus, a police car is always behind you.

WESTERVELT: I swear to God, I'll never do it again, says the startled taxi driver.

Across town, police and national security soldiers man a new checkpoint to try to catch car thieves and smugglers. It's a striking scene: well-armed Palestinian police standing in the road right next to the twisted concrete and wire rubble of the Palestinian national security building, which was destroyed by Israel during the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising. The rubble serves as a kind of reminder of the real security power here.

Lieutenant Sharkeih says every time the Israeli army comes into Nablus to arrest wanted militants, which happens almost every week, the police have to retreat, and he says we lose any credibility with our people.

Lieutenant AFRAFI SHARKEIH (Police Officer): (Through translator) The Israelis have to give us a chance to be a credible authority. They should let us rule and see that we are able to control things. But their continuous intervention weakens us and undermines our authority.

WESTERVELT: Today, there are about 500 police deployed in Nablus. The city is expected to add some four to 500 freshly trained officers in coming months.

Palestinian police throughout the West Bank still lack basic equipment, but morale is up as regular salaries have returned along with a renewed sense of mission. European and American money for training is flowing again.

But Captain Salah Yeshtaijaie(ph) says the police are only as strong as the Israelis allow them to be. Nablus cops are responsible for several villages and four refugee camps in and around the city. Yet Captain Yeshtaijaie says he can't enforce the law there, can't even move without direct coordination with the Israeli army.

Captain SALAH YESHTAIJAIE: (Through translator) How can I implement any security plan when I have to wait for two days for coordination to move outside the city? If we're allowed to move in in our full capacity, there's no problem, we'll do it immediately. But with the situation as it is now, it's impossible.

WESTERVELT: Israeli officials counter that close coordination is still needed because Palestinian security forces remain unwilling or unable to confiscate illegal weapons and arrest wanted militants. At one of the new police checkpoints in Nablus the laissez-faire attitude toward militants and unregistered weapons is clear.

Policeman Shaki Mashur(ph) says if they pull over a car packed with heavily armed militants, they're likely to let them go. He says they're most likely part of what he calls resistance against Israeli occupation.

Mr. SHAKI MASHUR (Police Officer): (Through translator) If the gunmen are well known, honest and credible fighters, we will let them pass, of course. But if they are rascals, we will confiscate and arrest.

WESTERVELT: Asked how he differentiates between credible gunmen and rascals, Officer Mashur says only the honest ones are well known.

Nablus police chief Ahmed Sharqawi predicts that most militant gunmen in the city will eventually get cleared, trained and absorbed into the regular security forces. But that's a long way off - a fact underscored by the crackle on the radio. There is word of some kind of shootout in the center of Nablus.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

WESTERVELT: Upon arrival, there's sporadic gunfire and confusion as mass Palestinian police move in very hesitantly - unclear what's going on and looking unsure what to do. It turns out rival militant factions, members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, were arguing in public, using their AK-47 rifles. Hardly unusual in Nablus.

Lieutenant Sharkeih looks a little shaken and embarrassed.

Lt. SHARKEIH: (Through translator) I don't think we can solve this problem or stop this at the roots. We appeal to the leaders. We talk to them. But it will take time to control these groups.

WESTERVELT: Then the policemen pauses and asks defiantly, but in the meantime, who will control Israel?

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Nablus.

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