JERUSALEM – Israel's defense minister on Tuesday said he would soon allow 600 foreign-trained Palestinian police to take up positions in a volatile West Bank town in a gesture aimed at helping the moderate Palestinian government restore law and order.
Palestinian officials, however, said the town, Jenin, does not require additional forces. And they said Israel is still not doing nearly enough to bolster moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his life-and-death showdown with the militants of Hamas — such as removing roadblocks, dismantling illegal West Bank outposts or releasing prisoners.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak's announcement came at a sensitive time in peace efforts. U.S.-backed peace talks have made little visible progress since they were launched last November, and Israel has come under growing international pressure to help prop up Abbas. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected in the region next week to check up on progress.
Speaking to reporters at an army base in the West Bank, Barak said the Palestinian officers would be deployed in Jenin, a town in the northern West Bank where Israeli soldiers frequently clash with Palestinian militants.
He did not say when the police would arrive, but said he would discuss the issue at a meeting Wednesday with the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad.
As part of the peace process, the Palestinians have pledged to crack down on militant groups. While Fayyad says he is capable of reining in gunmen, Israel maintains a large troop presence throughout the West Bank, saying Palestinian forces are not yet ready to take charge.
The 600 Palestinian officers have been receiving special training in neighboring Jordan since January under a program funded by the U.S.
Jenin is known as a stronghold of West Bank militants and Israel frequently conducts military raids to hunt down wanted men. But Palestinian security officials say they have largely restored quiet to the town and already have some 2,000 officers there, adding they were perplexed by Barak's gesture.
"We didn't apply for more forces in Jenin. We have enough," said Diab al-Ali, a top Palestinian security commander in the West Bank. "The only demand we have for Jenin is that Israel hand the city over to us."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas have set a December target for wrapping up a peace agreement.
A poll released Tuesday showed both Israelis and Palestinians deeply skeptical about peace efforts. The poll showed 53 percent of Israelis believe the peace talks now under way should be halted. Only 39 percent said they should continue. Among Palestinians, opposition was even higher: 75 percent, with support at only 21 percent.
Another finding showed 84 percent of Palestinians in favor of an attack by a gunman this month on a Jerusalem rabbinical school that killed eight.
The poll was carried out by two independent think tanks, one Israeli and one Palestinian: the Hebrew University's Truman Center in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.
Palestinian pollsters interviewed 1,270 people, and their poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. On the Israeli side, 597 people took part, and the margin of error was 4 percentage points.
Palestinian public opinion expert Khalil Shikaki, who conducted the Palestinian survey, said the unusually high figures in support of the attacks and against peace talks reflected anger and fear among the people, not necessarily strong opposition to peace talks or support for violence.
Also Tuesday, Israel hooked up 27 villages in the Jenin area to its electricity grid. A ceremony inaugurated the project, which provides power to about 15,000 villagers who were depending on their own generators up to now. France funded the euro11.5 million ($18 million) project.
Barak said he is considering other measures to bolster the Palestinians and improve the negotiating climate.
"We're considering a series of steps that won't hurt security," he said. Among them are allowing Palestinian forces to obtain additional vehicles and "non-lethal" weapons, such as rubber bullets, and helping Palestinian businessmen move freely between the West Bank and Israel.
However, Barak has made similar pledges in the past without taking action. And on Monday, he rejected a key Palestinian demand, saying he would not remove any of the hundreds of Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank for now.
The Palestinians and the international community, including Mideast envoy Tony Blair, say the travel restrictions are stifling the West Bank economy. Israel says the measures are needed to prevent attacks.