Abbas Fayad 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
A chance visitor to the Neveh Ilan Resort Hotel outside Jerusalem on Wednesday might have mistakenly thought that peace had broken out. Sixty police officers, Palestinian and Israeli, were sitting together in one of the meeting halls discussing ways to combat traffic accidents and raise road-safety awareness.
Organized by the European Union Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support (EU COPPS), the meeting brought together Palestinian Authority Police officials and officers from the Israel Police's Judea and Samaria District for a full day of workshops focusing on sharing data and studying various enforcement techniques.
The meeting was the first arranged by EU COPPS, which after an almost two-year lull in activity was recently reactivated in the West Bank as part of the international community and Israel's efforts to bolster the PA in face of the looming Hamas threat.
The participants were not complete strangers to one another. Some had met in previous such engagements, years ago during the hopeful Oslo period. Others knew each other from run-ins at military checkpoints and from the infrequent acts of coordination that had taken place during the 18 months that Israel was officially not speaking to the PA after Hamas won the general elections in January 2006.
So, while the chance visitor to Neveh Ilan would have been wrong in concluding that peace has been achieved, the gathering there does represent a new drive within the Israeli political and defense establishments - to do everything possible to strengthen the PA in the West Bank to the point that not only will Hamas not be able to run over Fatah there like it did in June in Gaza, but it won't even want to try to.
The problem is that just because there is a will does not always mean that there is a way.
One example is the issue of deploying armed PA policemen in Nablus. Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave authorization for the move more than a month ago during a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. At the time, Barak said he would be willing to adopt the model - seen as a step toward transferring full security control over the city to the PA - to other towns if it worked.
The trouble is that the PA has yet to deploy the policemen in Nablus. On Thursday, PA security officials were scheduled to sit with their Israeli counterparts for another meeting on coordinating the deployment.
But, despite the PA's difficulty in deploying the policemen, Israel, the EU and the US are pushing additional initiatives to build up the PA security forces in the West Bank. EU COPPS is planning further conferences and is in the process of raising funds from donor countries to be able to buy equipment and provide training for the police forces.
"They are currently working with the bare minimum," a EU official said this week of the PA Police. "Some police stations don't even have a fax and work with only one incoming phone line."
In addition, US Gen. Keith Dayton - the man who failed to adequately prepare and train Fatah forces in Gaza before the Hamas takeover - is working with Abbas's security forces, although this time he is humming a different tune.
According to Israeli defense officials who have met recently with him, Dayton has had a "change of heart" and is skeptical about the PA force's capability to enforce order in the West Bank.
"Dayton is aware that there is still a long way to go before Abbas's forces will be ready to take over control in the West Bank," explained a senior defense official. "This is interesting to hear from the same man who claimed that Fatah was strong and ready in Gaza before it was overrun within two days by Hamas."
Still, despite the overall skepticism concerning the PA's capabilities, Israel is not leaving the bolstering just to the EU and the US, but is taking its own steps to improve the quality of life in the West Bank. Barak recently ordered the removal of some 25 makeshift roadblocks, and the Civil Administration has dramatically increased its activities and cooperation with the PA.
There are two primary reasons behind this. Firstly, and in contrast to popular thinking, Hamas is just as strong in the West Bank as it is in the Gaza Strip. Therefore, if Israel wants Fatah to stand a chance at surviving an attempted takeover there, it needs to help the PA. The second reason has to do with the upcoming peace summit in Annapolis - all of the bolstering is being done in an attempt to show the Palestinian public that Abbas can not only lead, he can also deliver.
This same line of thinking is being portrayed as the answer to one of the more difficult questions related to the summit and that is how Gaza fits in.
WHILE PRIME Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas are busy racing toward Annapolis, they both realize that Gaza cannot be left out of the equation. Though neither they nor the Americans or the Europeans have an answer as to how it will fit in, the hope, at least in Ramallah, is that if Abbas succeeds in returning home with a handful of potential concessions, he will be able to chip away at the public support for Hamas by showing the people of Gaza that there is a viable alternative.
At the moment, however, Gaza could end up turning into the stumbling block for the summit even before it begins. While Israel is doing everything it can to stave off a large-scale operation there, the Thursday morning missile barrage - nine Kassams were fired into Sderot - is evidence that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are doing all they can to derail the Israeli-PA peace talks and ultimately the summit.
As Gaza Division chief Brig.-Gen. Moshe (Chico) Tamir confessed this week, the IDF is acting purely in a defensive posture and is merely responding to Hamas action. The military, he said, had yet to turn its operations into offensive ones.
This is partially due to the defense establishment's fear that a larger-scale offensive would cause large numbers of casualties on both sides, and almost definitely cause a cancellation of the summit. But it is also due to a severe lack of strategic thinking as to how Israel can to counter Hamas and deal with Gaza.
The strategy against Hamas has not changed in the almost two years since its rise to governmental power following the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. As demonstrated by Defense Ministry's flip-flop this week on the issue of cutting the electricity to Gaza, the government's policies, some defense officials complained, were in fact regressing and not progressing.
While the IDF has drafted a number of operational plans for dealing with Hamas - from invading Gaza to creating buffer zones - Kassam rockets are still pounding the South.
Cuts in fuel supplies that started this week, periodic blackouts, targeted killings and close-border operations do not constitute a strategy. They are tactical solutions that can help Israel get through the Annapolis summit but will not eliminate the long-term threat.