Blair hails policing progress in Jenin

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Unlike some of her classmates Asil Zakarna was precise about the name, if not the job, of the important visitor whose hand she shook after he arrived in the middle of the fifth grade Arabic lesson at Khaula Bint Al Azwar school yesterday. "He is Tony Blair", the 10-year-old said. "My teacher told me. I think he is the security commander."

Asil's description was understandable, given the extent to which security is a preoccupation in this northern West Bank city. For Jenin, scene in 2002 of one of the bloodiest Israeli incursions launched against armed militants during the intifada, is now gaining a reputation as a model of improved performance by the Palestinian Authority's partly Western-trained police and security forces.

Mr Blair, the international community's Middle East envoy, was visiting Asil's school because it is in the process of being upgraded by international donors through the Municipal Development and Lending Fund, which the envoy has helped to promote. But he was also here, in his own words, to congratulate Jenin's Fatah governor, Kadoura Moussa, on the "great progress and work done over the past few months".

Israel has acknowledged the strides made in policing Jenin, with even the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, saying recently that "so far" the city has been a "great success" and could in time prove an example elsewhere in the West Bank.

On the other hand Israeli officials continue to contend that effectiveness in stamping out crime has not been matched by similar success against armed factions like Hamas.

That was sharply contested by Mr Moussa who yesterday said that Jenin now boasted "one gun, one law, one leadership". "If anyone breaks the law he is arrested. There are no militias any more in Jenin." He was strongly backed by Jenin's police chief, who insisted that the Fatah-dominated Preventative Security had arrested 80 per cent of wanted men in the city. Both men complained vigorously that continued raids into the city by the Israel Defence Forces undermined the credibility of the Palestinian security forces' efforts. "The incursions inhibit the role of our security and police. They should co-ordinate their operations with us. We cannot go into the villages without their agreement."

Mr Moussa also echoed Jenin businessmen when he said the progress needed an "economic response" from Israel. Rami Asrawi, 26, who runs a mobile phone shop in central Jenin, acknowledged that greater freedom allowed to the Palestinian police had meant "less crime, fewer thieves". But he said there had been no recovery in his business, which slumped to a sixth of what it was before the intifada began in 2000. The recent decision by Israel to allow Israeli Arabs into Jenin to shop and resume business had made little difference since they were not allowed to travel in by car.

These points were implicitly acknowledged by Mr Blair when he said, after his meetings yesterday, that Jenin was still a "long way from becoming the thriving and prosperous city it could be".