ALLENBY BRIDGE, West Bank (Reuters) – The first battalion of Palestinian security forces crossed into Jordan on Thursday to begin training under a U.S. program after nearly a year-long delay.
Washington wants to train the backbone of a Palestinian gendarmerie but the program is projected to graduate only 2,000 men in 2008, the timeframe set by President George W. Bush for reaching an agreement on a Palestinian state.
The first battalion of nearly 700 U.S.-screened recruits to serve in an overhauled National Security Force crossed the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge, in the occupied West Bank, into Jordan for what officials called “law and order” training.
The eventual plan is for a nearly 50,000-member gendarmerie in the West Bank.
The slow start to the U.S. program could compound doubts about peace efforts that largely hinge on convincing Israel that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can combat militants before its army leaves occupied land, Western officials said.
U.S. government documents show the four-month-long courses, at a facility in Jordan already used by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces, will focus on law and order and policing training. None of the instructors will be U.S. government personnel.
Palestinian and many Western observers blame Israel for undermining the U.S.-led security overhaul, which could help the Palestinians make the case that they are ready for statehood.
Abbas’s government has launched a security crackdown in parts of the West Bank but say Israeli raids are hurting the effort. Israel has also prevented equipment like body amour and new armored vehicles from reaching Abbas’s men.
While acknowledging improvement in some parts of the West Bank, Israel asserts that Palestinian security forces are still unreliable and include large numbers of anti-Israel militants.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insists a Palestinian state will not be established until the Palestinians rein in militants in the West Bank, where Abbas’s secular Fatah faction holds sway, and the Gaza Strip, which Hamas seized in June.
The U.S. vetting program requires detailed background checks for each recruit. Israel has a veto over who participates because it has to give them permission to travel to Jordan.
Washington is pressing other countries to fund training, but officials say little money has materialized despite billions pledged at a donors conference last month in Paris.