JENIN, West Bank – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited this former West Bank militant stronghold Saturday to highlight Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' law-and-order campaign, seen as one of the few successes in slow-moving Mideast peace efforts.
Rice has made frequent stops in the West Bank in recent years, but during most visits she spent just a few hours in Abbas' walled government compound in the town of Ramallah, near Jerusalem.
Saturday's trip took her to the northern end of West Bank. Despite the effort to showcase improved security in the West Bank, her motorcade took a roundabout route through Israel, rather than straight through the West Bank, to reach Jenin.
Her first stop was Jenin's Khalil Suleiman Hospital, where she inaugurated a ward renovated with $700,000 in U.S. aid. After a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Rice toured the maternity ward and greeted nurses. Looking into a room, she said: "Brand new babies, nothing better."
The hospital was closed to visitors Saturday, and the access road was sealed off.
Rice was accompanied by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. During her tour, she was to meet with local Palestinian security commanders and Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, a U.S. security envoy who has been helping to train Abbas' forces.
Abbas' security forces have been trying to assert control in more areas of the West Bank over the past year, going after criminals, vigilante gunmen and Hamas militants. It's part of an effort by the international community to restructure and strengthen Palestinian institutions as part of state-building.
The security campaign intensified after the Islamic militant Hamas seized Gaza by force in June 2007, with Abbas under intense pressure to prevent a repeat in the West Bank.
However, Israel continues to carry out arrest raids in areas under Abbas' control, saying Abbas' troops are still not doing enough to rein in militants. Palestinian commanders often complain that the Israeli raids undermine their authority. Rice's visit Saturday was seen as an important boost for Abbas' efforts.
Jenin residents had mixed feelings about the visitor.
They praised Abbas' forces for restoring since deploying in the spring. However, many were pessimistic about a peace deal that would deliver Palestinian statehood. Rice acknowledged earlier this week that a year-end target for such an agreement was no longer realistic.
Barber Mohammed Hamdan, 48, said life has improved. "You don't see stolen cars, you don't see people breaking the law in public," he said. "But we are looking for peace, and they have been negotiating for a long time without any real progress."
At the height of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2002, Jenin was a stronghold of Palestinian militants. Most armed men are now dead, in prison or have accepted an Israeli amnesty deal brokered by Abbas.
Rice has made eight trips to the region since President Bush convened an international peace summit in late November 2007 and announced that he would help shepherd an agreement to end the long-standing conflict before the end of this year.
She has not been directly involved in negotiations. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been meeting regularly, despite frustration over the pace and scope of the talks on the Palestinian side and internal political turmoil on the Israeli side.