By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz Correspondents
Hundreds of Palestinian police officers are expected to deploy Friday in the West Bank city of Nablus, following Thursday evening talks on the issue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The talks were held after Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad reached an agreement in principle on the deployment roughly one and a half months ago.
The deployment was not carried out earlier, due to difficulties on the Palestinian side in organizing their forces. Israel has agreed to allow 500 police officers deploy, although only 300 are actually expected to do so.
Nonetheless, Israel has made it clear that the Israel Defense Forces will continue to operate in the West Bank city when needed and will retain overall security responsibility in the Nablus area, while the police officers will focus on imposing law and order.
According to recent reports, United States Mideast security coordinator Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton has said behind closed doors that the Palestinian security forces operating in the West Bank are not adequately prepared to accept security responsibility over Palestinian cities.
Barak told officials during his recent visit to the U.S. that Israel is interested in further easing restrictions on Palestinians, and to allow their security forces to operate in the West Bank.
In meetings with Israeli officials, Dayton praised Fayad for his efforts to rehabilitate the Palestinian security services. However Dayton, who prior to Hamas' rout of Fatah in the Gaza Strip expressed faith in the ability of the PA security forces, now has a much more pessimistic assessment of their capabilities.
Nonetheless, he believes the forces will be ready to assume security control following additional training in the next six months.
Israeli intelligence officials share Dayton's pessimistic assessment, telling the political leadership that the PA would be unable to exercise security control over West Bank cities in the near future.
Fayad himself said during the summer that his forces are not yet ready for the mission. Israel, however, is continuing to allow the PA to deploy police officers in West Bank cities in order to preserve public order, but not take responsibility for security matters.
The PA established a select force during the summer, which is currently awaiting deployment in Nablus. Once deployed, the force will immediately begin a sweeping operation to counter criminal activity in the city.
Israeli security sources say they believe the PA is concerned it will be unable to impose order in Nablus, due to expected clashes with armed gangs in the city. PA officials are also worried that IDF soldiers, who will continue counterterrorism operations, will also engage armed police officers.