Young cadets carry briefcases as they rush to computer labs, Hebrew classes and conflict resolution drills. They are the vanguard of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' campaign to prevent the West Bank from falling to Hamas. The just-opened officers' school is part of Abbas' new security plan to keep the Islamic militants on the defensive, and to reassure Israel and the US that he's strong enough to carry out a peace deal. The first 142 officers will graduate in eight months, returning to their old units with new expertise that Mideast peacemakers hope will help end the chaos reigning on Palestinian streets.
With their new skills - including Hebrew to communicate with Israeli counterparts - they are to bring a sense of professionalism to Abbas' security forces, whose poor training and conflicting loyalties contributed to the fall of Gaza to Hamas in June. The US, meanwhile, has earmarked $86 million in security support for Abbas, and some of that will go to three other training centers in Jericho.
Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza raised questions about Abbas' ability to hang on to the West Bank, where Hamas also made strong gains with a popular network of schools, clinics and charities. Many Palestinians said at the time that Abbas' control does not extend beyond the quiet, middle-class town of Ramallah, his seat of government.
But four months later, Abbas' countermeasures are taking shape: He's closed dozens of Hamas charities, fired Hamas preachers, arrested hundreds of Hamas activists, including many gunmen, confiscated weapons and last weekend issued an anti-money laundering decree meant to dry up millions of dollars in donations from abroad.
The test case for the security plan is Nablus, the West Bank's second-largest city with 170,000 and a Hamas stronghold. "We defeated Hamas," said the local intelligence chief, Abdullah Kmeil, representing a new generation of Palestinian officers that is as comfortable with a laptop as with a Kalashnikov. "They (Hamas militants) can't come back at all."
Sheik Maher Kharas, a Hamas leader and preacher in Nablus, acknowledged that his group has been weakened by the recent clampdown, the toughest since 1996 when then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ordered hundreds of Islamic militants arrested following a bombing spree against Israeli civilians.
However, Kharas, who was briefly detained by Palestinian intelligence earlier this month, said Hamas is strong enough to ride out the storm. Hamas leaders have decided not to fight Abbas' security forces, because such a confrontation would be pointless and only cost the group popular support, said Kharas.
Hamas leaders in Gaza are much more belligerent, saying a Hamas takeover of the West Bank is inevitable. Nizar Rayan, a leading Hamas militant, told a Gaza rally on Monday that one day, Hamas activists will pray in Abbas' West Bank headquarters. "In the autumn, the leaves fall, and Abbas will fall," he said.
Still, Israeli security forces are deployed throughout the West Bank, carrying out nightly arrest raids, and their presence would make a Hamas takeover attempt extremely unlikely. In Gaza, Hamas only carried out its assault on Abbas' security installations two years after Israel's pullout from the territory.
Abbas' security plan is not just a way of keeping Hamas at bay. He expects it to give him leverage in his dealings with Israel, especially in the run-up to a US-hosted Mideast conference in Annapolis, Md. later this fall. Starting with Nablus, Abbas wants Israeli troops to withdraw gradually from West Bank towns where Palestinian security forces are re-establishing control. The Palestinians also argue that while they have made progress in meeting their security obligations, Israel has done very little to keep its promises to the US, such as freezing settlements and removing illegal outposts.
Israel, which has frequently raided West Bank population centers since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, in response to attacks by Palestinian terrorists, has balked at loosening the reins, saying it can't gamble with its security.
Palestinians can take over territory only if they "demonstrate an ability to exert effective security control over those areas, and for Israel that means foiling terror attacks and maintaining order," said Israeli government spokesman David Baker. "They have quite a way to go before the Palestinian forces are indeed performing at that level," he added.
On Tuesday, Abbas' security chief, Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, took 20 European consuls on a tour of Nablus, where Hamas won control of the city council in 2005, but has since been largely stripped of its influence. "What happened in Gaza definitely won't happen here," Yehiyeh said, adding that he expects Israeli forces to halt its arrest raids once some 500 more Palestinian officers are deployed in Nablus next week.
Somebody needs to tell it to the boss because he seems to be operating on a different paradigm.