Blue-shirted Palestinian police officers with a German-supplied radar gun were busy last week on a road in the northern city of Jenin. Until three years ago, when a law and order campaign was launched, Jenin was the most lawless city in the West Bank and no one then imagined it could become a venue for speed traps.
"I'm confused. What is going on here?" said Khaled Rahan, 19, whose van was pulled over inside the Jenin city limits on the road leading south from Jenin to Nablus. He was going 63kph, 13kph over the limit, which police insist the public knows about, despite their being no signs yet to that effect.
"We do this for you to be safe. Why don't you have seat belts for everyone?" Major Ayman Ibrahim Abdul-Qader asked another driver caught speeding with the radar gun. The fine for speeding up to 80kph is 300 shekels (about £50), while a driver going beyond that is also taken to court so that he may lose his license, police say.
In addition to making roads safer, the radar gun and enforcing traffic law has considerable symbolic importance. Preceded by a steep drop in attacks against Israeli targets, it underscores the success of the Palestinian Authority in bringing West Bank areas it rules under law and order.
In a very real sense, the law and order campaign is the prerequisite for Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's stated goal of having Palestinian areas ready for statehood by next year, whether diplomacy with Israel remains stalled or not.
"The state to be built is made up of tiles," says General Radi Assidi, the senior Palestinian commander in Jenin. "The radar represents law and order and discipline. It comes within the context of the rule of law, although it is just one of a thousand elements that has to be present."
Just a few years ago, at the height of the second intifada uprising, there was no law in Jenin other than that of the al-Aksa martyrs brigade militia, affiliated with Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction. The city had the distinction of serving as the launching pad for more bombing attacks against Israel than any other during the intifada and its refugee camp was largely razed during an Israeli West Bank operation seven years ago.
Internally, it was the Kalashnikov that ruled. In 2004, the militia's gun-toting leader, Zakaria Zubeidi, kidnapped the governor of Jenin, Haidar Irshard, for refusing to make payments to the brigades. The brigades also burned down the local offices of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Now, however, under the law and order programme, Mr Zubeidi has been coopted. He is a director-general in the local security forces, with a regular place on the PA payroll. "Now that the PA has taken complete control of its security agencies, it is logical that I am an active member of these agencies," Mr Zubeidi says.
The PA helped build a villa for Mr Zubeidi, who insists he deserved this because his house was demolished three times by the Israeli army.
General Assidi says: "Zakaria and his group are much calmer now, they are members of the security forces and adhere totally to the rules for the PA security services."
With Israeli forces generally holding back so that the PA forces can exert control, the city has come back to life, boasting a new shopping mall and cinema. "Things are a lot better," says Ahmad al-Saadi, who works in a spice store. "The improvement in security affects everything."
Mr Al-Saadi says that with the streets safe, on Saturdays many Arab citizens of Israel now come to shop in the city, injecting much-needed cash.
However, a Hamas supporter with relatives being held in Palestinian jails voiced dissatisfaction. "There is no real security. All they are doing is chasing us," said the man, who asked not to be identified.
Palestinian analyst Hani Masri, head of the independent Bada'el think-tank in Ramallah, says the PA should be given credit for bringing internal security to the streets of cities like Jenin. However, the improvement is a fragile one, he says. "At the same time that this has happened, Israel has been broadening the occupation by settlement building, destroying homes and passing new laws," Mr Masri said.
In particular, Mr Masri said, a new law requiring a referendum if Israel gives up territory in a peace deal points up that peace prospects are moving backwards, not forward, he says. "Without a political horizon, the results we've seen on internal security could collapse rather than continue," he said.Reuse content