Can Palestinian police get respect through soccer clinics?

The West Bank police force has embarked on a community outreach campaign, organizing soccer clinics, town meetings, and antidrug information chats for kids. Will it bolster respect for the much-maligned police?

Bernat Armangue/AP
Palestinian soccer supporters are silhouetted prior the start of a soccer game between the Palestine team and the Jordan team in the West Bank town of A-Ram on Oct. 5.

For years, the Palestinian police force has been considered by many in the West Bank and Gaza to be weak, corrupt, disconnected from the people – not to mention in cahoots with Israel.

But, in an effort to win the hearts and minds of the Palestinian grassroots, the West Bank police force has embarked on a community outreach campaign, organizing soccer clinics, town meetings, and antidrug information chats for kids.

On Tuesday, the National Security police force ran a one day soccer clinic for middle-school aged kids in the town of Tulkarem. Similar clinics have been held in recent months in the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin.

The policy is part of a broader move to professionalize and reform the Palestinian Authority security branches as a step toward strengthening law and order and, eventually, prospects for a viable state.

Until now, the praise has largely come from Western leaders and Israeli generals. That's recently being echoed at the grassroots by Palestinian civilians in the crime-ridden suburb of A-Ram – severed from Jerusalem by Israel’s concrete security wall.

In August, on the final day of an A-Ram community summer camp for group of preteen boys, dozens of hands shot up as Maj. Mohammed Barakat quizzed them about the job of the police and the dangers of experimenting with drugs.

"The Palestinian police [force] is Palestinian like you," Barakat explained. "We want to protect your homes and defend you from criminals."

Security in summer camp

Teachers and community activists said that drug trafficking is prevalent in Ram because of its close proximity to Jerusalem, putting children at risk. There was no police presence in the town, partly because it is an area where security responsibility is supposed to be shared with Israel, according to peace accords. This year, police officers began providing security for summer camps.

"This is unprecedented," said Inam Darwish, an A-Ram first-grade teacher after an antidrug lecture organized by the police at a local high school a group of kids. "Before there was no respect for the police because they were considered weak and they themselves didn’t implement the laws. This is the first time the kids are in direct contact with the police. They don’t fear the police."

Police chief's vision

In an interview before the lecture, Major Barakat said the community outreach program is the vision of Police Chief Maj. Gen. Hazem Atallah. "This way society becomes responsible for its own security,’’ Barakat said.

The civil police force is charged with domestic tasks, such as crime and directing traffic. It is not responsible for arresting and monitoring militant groups. In some Palestinian areas, the police are not permitted by Israel to carry weapons or wear uniforms.

In the chaos of the uprising against Israel last decade, the police barely functioned and militant groups and families stepped into the vacuum.

The shift began about three years ago with a drive to give Palestinian cops professional training. The police are trained at an academy in Jericho and get assistance from the European Union.

"There was no role [for the police] before, especially in A-Ram," says Fawda Khader, a community activist. "The police have started to contribute in the community, and we are encouraging coordination…. We need the police in our life – in our schools, camps, and in the streets."

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