Mideast leaders launch fresh talks

A Palestinian rescue of an Israeli soldier in Jenin Tuesday boosted hopes for security cooperation.

By , Correspondent , Staff writer

The Palestinian crowd surrounded the Israeli military officer who had taken a wrong turn and found himself lost in the West Bank city of Jenin, a place whose name is synonymous with bad blood between Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinian security officers pushed past people tossing rocks and bottles and shouting "kill him," grabbed the Israeli, and hustled him off to the safety of their headquarters, where he was given some coffee and a phone to call his commanding officer.

In another context, this might just be a local story. But it became headline news Tuesday – and is breathing a small whiff of optimism into the atmosphere as Israeli and Palestinian leaders set about giving peace another chance.

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Tuesday in Jerusalem, one in a series of meetings the two have planned ahead of the US-sponsored international peace conference to be held in November in the United States.

But even as some celebrated this apparent boost to Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, others warned that more measures are needed to improve conditions under which the Palestinian Authority (PA) is operating – allowing PA forces, for example, to move more freely in the West Bank.

Abdullah Said, a Palestinian intelligence officer, was one of those who leaped in to protect the Israeli soldier in Jenin. "If coordination with Israel benefits my people, then it's better than coordinating with Iran," says Mr. Said, a plainclothes officer speaking at the Muqata, the PA's security headquarters in Jenin, which sits surrounded by rubble left from the Israeli army's controversial invasion of the city in April 2002.

Moreover, says Said, he wanted to avoid a situation where another Israeli soldier would be kidnapped, causing Israeli retaliation or a rescue effort that could lead to violence. He was referring to the impact of Israel's operations in Gaza last summer after Palestinian militants affiliated with Hamas kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Israelis around the country marked his absence with public vigils and called for release.

The events in Jenin weakened the stance of Israeli skeptics who complain that Fatah is too weak to enforce law and order, and that Israel has no capable partner for peace. Israel's foreign minister, Tzippi Livni, commended the development as evidence that the Palestinian Authority, at least as it operates in the West Bank, is beefing up its ability to assert itself and its policy of conducting peace talks with Israel.

"Such action demonstrates the strengthening of the Palestinian government in its efforts in the field to combat terrorism," Ms. Livni said in a statement. "Terrorist elements are trying to undermine the joint efforts of moderates in Israel and the Palestinian Authority to improve security in the area. Action such as that taken [Tuesday] ... prevents a decline in the security situation and helps to safeguard the daily lives of both Israelis and Palestinians."

How much support this one event has among Palestinians is debatable. Security sources in Jenin said that after the dramatic turn of events in Jenin, renegade members of the Al-Aqsa Brigades, which were supposed to disarm this summer, were engaged in gun battles with the PA. Members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad decried the events as cooperation with the occupation. Many Palestinians complained that the Israeli army is still making deadly incursions into Jenin, despite promises to stop.

But Suleiman Akkid, a major in the Palestinian security forces, said that cooperation with Israel has recently begun to function in a way it hasn't in many years. "Palestinian police in Jenin are involved in intelligence sharing with the Israeli army," Major Akkid says. "When there is a security incident inside Jenin, we notify the Israelis, and when the Israelis carry out a mission, they notify us as well." He also said that Palestinian police were once again being permitted to patrol in areas that they'd been promised under the Oslo Accords.

Gershom Baskin, co-director the Israeli-Palestinian Center for Research and Information, says that improved coordination is key things to political progress. "One thing that enables progress was the extremely serious way in which the Palestinians were dealing with security cooperation," he says. But many Palestinians, he warns, believe that the "amnesty agreement," in which Israel agreed not to seek the arrest of militants from the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Brigades, is breaking down as the Israeli army continues to seek men still on their "wanted" list.

Ghassan Khatib, head of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC), says Palestinians are upset at the lack of improvements in daily life, such as in removing checkpoints and easing travel restrictions. "We Palestinians have learned to judge things on a practical basis," he says. "When we look at practices on the ground, we don't see change. While these [summit] meetings seem to give the impression the situation is improving, there's a disconnect between the reality and the image."

Earlier this week, the JMCC announced following its first poll since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip that almost half of the Palestinian public, or 46.7 percent, believes that the situation in Gaza worsened following the Hamas coup, while a slight majority, or 35.4 percent, says the situation in the West Bank improved after Abbas's formation of a temporary "caretaker" government headed by Salam Fayyad, who serves as prime minister, foreign minister, and finance minister.

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