Israeli and Palestinian negotiators hold their first peace conference in seven years next week in the U.S. city of Annapolis, Maryland. Palestinians say they want Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank, but Israel says for that to happen Palestinians must improve security in the territory. In a bid to do just that, the moderate government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has deployed hundreds of newly trained police in the volatile West Bank city of Nablus. VOA's Jim Teeple visited Nablus and filed this report.
The Nablus bomb squad seals off a narrow street in the heart of this volatile city - a stronghold of militants and criminal gangs in the West Bank.
Until recently, police were scarcely seen on these streets where militants of the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade were the law. The Al-Aksa militants belong to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, but many residents of Nablus say many members of the group are also involved in criminal activities. The lawless violence of the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade and their daily clashes with Israeli troops who ring the city make Nablus a tense and chaotic city.
But now that is changing. Mr. Abbas' government is sending about 500 newly trained Palestinian police to Nablus - to control the militants and to try and convince Israel to ease its military occupation of the city, which is home to about 200,000 Palestinians.
Police say the security plan, which is backed by international donors including the United States, is working. Samhar Abdo, who heads the Nabus bomb squad, says police are getting new found respect from the militants.
"Now, they [militants] are feeling the danger that the security apparatus is coming back and is really forcing itself in the street really firmly," he said. "Now they are trying to be friends. If they do not, they will face jail and prison."
Nablus Police Chief Ahmed Sharqawi is in charge of the new plan. He says he has told the militants of the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade they will have to cooperate with the police and eventually disarm. Chief Sharqawi says he believes he is making progress with the militants but not with the Israeli military whose continued raids into Nablus he says undercut the authority of his police force.
Chief Sharqawi says the Israelis are trying to embarrass his police force by staging raids all over Nablus that disrupt the work of his force.
Speaking in Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mark Regev says for now, Israel does not believe the Palestinian police in Nablus are capable of controlling crime and militancy.
"When the Palestinian government is strong enough to deal with the threat posed by the armed gangs, by the terrorist groups, then of course Israel will not have to do the sort of actions we are doing today," he said. "But if we today cease defensive actions and there will be a vacuum, of course we know who will move into the vacuum that will be the extremists, that won't be good for peace, that won't be good for anyone."
As for the Al-Aksa militants who are now being pursued by both the Palestinian police and Israeli forces, many say they want to cooperate with the Palestinian police, but as long as the Israelis continue their raids in Nablus there is no way they will disarm. Hani al-Kabi is an Al-Aksa commander in the Balata refugee camp, on the outskirts of Nablus.
Hani al-Kabi says the Palestinian police would not ask for his weapon, and as long as the Israelis keep coming into the Balata camp he will not surrender it.
Palestinian police rarely patrol inside the Balata camp and Hani al-Kabi and his fellow militants are the law there. The ultimate test for the Palestinian police in Nablus will be to convince both the Al-Aksa militants and the Israeli Army that they alone should be the responsible for security in this volatile and violent West Bank city.