Jericho, West Bank — Dressed in freshly pressed uniforms, officers stroll through the new school toting briefcases stuffed with course packs for classes in information technology and Hebrew.
Wake-up is at 5 a.m., and the daily schedule includes lineups, weight training and lectures. It is a place of order, discipline and timetables — concepts not usually associated with the Palestinian security forces.
“In the next 10 months,” explains Iyad Bheis, a police officer from Hebron, “I hope to improve my knowledge of the lecture topics, and at the same time my work in the field will be improved.”
Welcome to the grounds of the gleaming new Palestinian Security Sciences Academy, which Palestinians hope to turn into a sort of West Point of the West Bank.
As the inaugural semester of the new Palestinian Security Sciences Academy got under way in late October, officers considered elite of the of the West Bank began a regimen of study and training considered an important part of reforming the Palestinian armed forces.
With Israelis and Palestinians trying to hammer out a joint peace declaration before a Middle East summit in Annapolis, Md., progress at the peace table is predicated on Palestinian restoring law and order in their territory.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is now the special envoy of the “Quartet” of Middle East peacemakers, said that Israelis’ primary concern about the establishment of a Palestinian state is not about its contours but how the government will function and whether it will boost stability.
“The Palestinian side has to prove that it can run a state and govern it well,” he said this week in Jerusalem at a forum hosted by the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
“If the Palestinians want a state, they have to accept the responsibility of statehood — taking tough decisions to make sure they have the capability, particularly on stability. Intentions will not suffice, only actions will.”
To hear trainee Bheis explain it, progress in security reform is just as pressing for the average Palestinian as it is for Israel or the U.S.
“The goal is to implement the law for all without discrimination,” explained Bheis, who noted that too many Palestinians had fallen back on clan rule rather than the police. “The most important issue is not the to let families intervene. We want to develop our political abilities.”
For years, Israel, the U.S. and the international community have demanded that the Palestinians consolidate a dozen or so security outfits into three forces. Boosting professionalism and discipline among the security officers is seen as key if the PA is to win the support of its jaded constituents and help it compete the Hamas-run government in Gaza. This week some 300 police reinforcements arrived in Nablus to get control over a city known as a den of chaos and militancy.
“For the Americans and the Israelis, it is important because it makes the partner more credible instead of just being a paper tiger. How can the PA sit at a table and negotiate big issues, if it can’t solve small issues like an assertion of its own power,” said Mohammed Dajani, a professor of political science at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.
“This is an attempt to give the PA some stature and some respect among Palestinians by saying it can enforce its sovereignty. The rule of the gangs was beginning to grow here as it was in Gaza.”
The multimillion-dollar facility, located on the outskirts of the sleepy West Bank town of Jericho and in the works for eight years, includes a computer lab, video conference equipment to connect cadets with lecturers in Jordan and Ramallah, and a mirrored weight room.
The first class of 140 cadets — including two women — that started this month are expected to graduate at the end of the academic year. There are plans to begin a multi-year curriculum next year for an undergraduate degree in security studies.
“This will be the cream,” Palestinian Intelligence Chief Tawfiq Tirawi, one of the visionaries of the military academy. “The importance is to give the Palestinian officer a chance to be educated according to scientific and a professional basis.”
In addition to collecting illegal weapons, Tirawi says the police force will be trained to develop ties wit h local community members.
Instead of professionalism and discipline, the PA police force has a reputation for cronyism and corruption. Complicating the task, many members have dual memberships in the security services and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, militia groups that will be pursued for their weapons.
“The weapons should be in the hands of the security forces,” said Hanadi Nator, a resident of Nablus who has hustled her children off the streets at the sound of gunshots. “The government has to protect us and no one else.”
Like most Palestinian public projects, upgrading the Palestinian security services has become an international affair. The academy building was built with the help of donations from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, and Malaysia – and the donor flags are displayed on plaques outside of classrooms they paid for. None of the $86 million designated by the U.S. to overhaul Palestinian security forces has been spent on the building.
The academy’s deputy director, Naif Jaradat, an expert on French political philosophy, said he sees the school as one of the building blocks of a future state of Palestine.
“It is very important for the PA to build the institutions and government like all modern countries,” he said. “Especially in this region where security is sensitive.”
Jaradat said the school has been based on military academies is Jordan, Qatar and Egypt.
In one lecture that focuses on the principles of national security, Prof. Ramadan Ramadan spoke about the connection between internal and foreign security. “External relations can only be guaranteed if there is internal security.”
Downstairs in the weight room, workout instructor Abdel Rahim Salim explained that officers spend about an hour per day in the gym. “A healthy body lends for a healthy mind,” said the bulging trainer. “Blowing off steam helps them absorb academic material.”
The reputation of Palestinian security forces were undermined back in June when Hamas militant’s took over the Gaza Strip by force. Last week, a spokesperson for Hamas predicted that the Abbas-run Palestinian Authority would give way to Islamic rule within a year.
Though located in Jericho, a town that sees itself as a Palestinian tourist mecca, the pupils are not on vacation. They are subjected to unforgiving line-ups and strict white-glove tests of their dorms. Palestinians hope that the discipline at the academy will eventually trickle down to the officers in the field.
“There is no organization,” said Basel Assaf, a lecturer at the authority, in an interview with Al-Jazeera. “There is no unit of commands among them. And there’s no communication.”
Indeed, with a crisis management course, the Palestinian Security Science Academy will test communications skills — even in Hebrew. “We will be communicating with the Israelis hopefully in the future, “ said Suheib Douglas, a cop from Nablus, “so it’s an important language for us.”