The first class of Palestinian policewomen to complete a new EU-sponsored training program graduated Sunday, part of a broader European Union makeover of the demoralized and ill-equipped Palestinian law enforcement agencies.
The 45 rookies will join a small group of women serving in a role still largely frowned upon in conservative Palestinian society.
Their duties will include traffic patrols, house searches and carrying out security checks on women at prisons and institutions such as universities, police spokesman Adnan Dameree said.
He did not have a breakdown of how many women currently serve in the West Bank, but said that before the June takeover of the Gaza Strip by the violent Islamic Hamas group, the overall number of females in the Palestinian civil police was just 500, out of 18,700 men and women officers cited in EU data.
Colin Smith, head of the EU mission training the Palestinian police, said improving training for women was an integral part of plans to build "a police force that meets all challenges and will support all members of the community."
Arms swinging, backs ramrod straight, the new graduates marched across the academy's parade ground in the desert oasis of Jericho. The women, many with Islamic headscarves under their police berets, wore blue shirts, black pants and combat boots.
One of the spectators, excitedly snapping souvenir pictures of her cadet sister, was Amal Abu el-Leil, 37, from Askar refugee camp in the northern West Bank, herself a veteran policewoman.
"The hardest thing is to wear a uniform and patrol the streets," she said. "Even after 13 years of service, I still suffer from people not really accepting the sight of women police."
Helping outweigh those concerns was the prospect of a steady job for a woman without a high school diploma, in a place where unemployment runs at about 30 percent.
Eleen Taweel, 25, said joining the police force has been her dream since childhood.
"You can't imagine how happy and proud I am now that I am officially a policewoman," she said.
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