The Palestinian Authority has taken a step toward resuming security control in the volatile West Bank. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, the move comes ahead of another round of high-level diplomacy.
About 300 Palestinian policemen have deployed in the West Bank city of Nablus in a fresh bid to restore law and order. Israel handed control of West Bank towns to the Palestinians under the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, but the Israeli army moved back in after the Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000.
The return of Palestinian police to Nablus comes ahead of an international peace conference in the United States planned for later this year. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been hammering out a document on Palestinian statehood, and they also renewed their commitments under the internationally-backed "Roadmap" peace plan. The plan calls on Israel to halt settlement activity and on the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups.
So Nablus, which is known as a stronghold of Palestinian militants, is seen as a test case. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
"This is in the interest of Palestinians: They must maintain one gun, one authority and the rule of law," said Saeb Erekat.
Israel approved the deployment, saying it is part of U.S.-backed efforts to strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He heads a moderate government in the West Bank after his Fatah forces in the Gaza Strip were routed by the Islamic militant group Hamas in a Palestinian civil war in June. Israel wants to isolate Hamas, which refuses to recognize the Jewish state or renounce violence.
Israeli spokesman Mark Regev says Nablus is an important opportunity for the Abbas government.
"If the Palestinians do what they're obligated to do under the Roadmap, then I believe we could have an independent Palestinian state in the very near future," said Regev.
The issue of Palestinian statehood will top the agenda of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrives here this weekend for separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.