NABLUS, West Bank (Reuters) -Hundreds of Palestinian security officers went on patrol in Nablus on Friday in a Western- backed drive to impose order in the occupied West Bank ahead of a peace conference with Israel.
Israel, which is trying to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, approved the deployment in the flashpoint city. Israeli government spokesman David Baker said the move would improve security and could be repeated elsewhere in the West Bank if it worked well.
Dressed in green berets and carrying automatic rifles, officers belonging to the Palestinian National Security Forces — viewed by many Palestinians as the equivalent of an army — fanned out across the West Bank city.
The force, which a senior Palestinian government official said numbered around 300, provides a major boost to a weak police force that struggles to crack down on gunmen and gangs.
“Nobody believed we could succeed in convincing Israel to allow Palestinian forces to enter Palestinian cities,” Palestinian Interior Minister Abdel-Razak Yahya, who inspected the officers on Friday with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. “We are doing it as part of an effort to end chaos.”
Israel launches frequent raids against Palestinian militants in Nablus and controls entrance to the city through checkpoints, which it says are needed to stop suicide bombers.
Palestinians call Israel’s network of West Bank checkpoints collective punishment. Palestinian government officials have expressed concern that continued raids by Israeli troops could jeopardize the experiment.
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are trying to narrow differences over establishing a Palestinian state ahead of a U.S.-backed Middle East peace conference expected to be held before the end of the year.
The United States has started training members of Abbas’s Presidential Guard and National Security Forces. Last week the White House asked the U.S. Congress for at least $410 million in additional funds in 2008 to build up Abbas’ forces and ease the Palestinian Authority’s financial woes.
Islamist group Hamas routed Abbas’s secular Fatah faction in violent clashes in Gaza in June. Abbas then sacked a Hamas-led government and appointed a Fatah-backed administration in the West Bank.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets Israeli and Palestinian leaders this weekend to craft a joint document ahead of the conference, to be held near Washington.