With all of the unrest sweeping the Middle East, one place long-associated with bullets and bloodshed has so far been remarkably calm: the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
I recently traveled there for the first time in a decade and so much had changed. Cities once racked with violence like Ramallah, Hebron and Jericho are now bustling. Peaceful. Vibrant. Where Israeli bullets and Palestinian rocks used to fly, the biggest danger I felt was getting trampled by herds of shoppers or struck by taxis racing to their next fare.
The purpose of our visit was to look at what is behind this new security and prosperity in the West Bank -- and whether it could hold. One of the cornerstones of the new West Bank -- and the focus of our upcoming report -- is a little-known U.S. program that for about five years has been providing training and equipment to Palestinian national security forces. There are now some 3,500 of these freshly trained, professional and disciplined troops standing watch on West Bank streets.
The very idea that United States is supporting Palestinian troops would have been unthinkable not long ago -- these very troops previously existed to resist occupation of Israel, America's closest ally in the region. But what makes this story even more interesting is that these newly-trained Palestinian forces are now working shoulder to shoulder with Israeli soldiers against a common enemy: the Islamist group Hamas. Hamas is intent on wiping the Jewish state off the map; but it also wants to usurp the Palestinian territories from the Palestinian Authority. And in 2007, it had some success -- violently seizing control of Gaza Strip, which borders Egypt, from the Palestinian Authority and using the territory to launch rockets into Israel.
Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority fear Hamas' ambitions to extend to the West Bank. But the unlikely cooperation between their forces has managed to keep the group at bay there. This means the internecine street fights between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are over for now. And the average Palestinian on the street has noticed -- filling Ramallah's coffee shops, restaurants and freshly-built shopping centers. Israel also has reaped the benefits. Notably, there hasn't been a suicide bomb attack there for about three years.
A great deal of credit for this cooperation goes to the Palestinian Authority's prime minister, Salam Fayyad. Peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis remain stalled at the starting gate -- and a more than 200-mile barrier and Israeli-manned checkpoints now divide much of the West Bank from Israel. But while the West Bank is not yet an official Palestinian state, it's sure starting to act like one.
Under Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority has been rooting out endemic corruption, building new roads and schools, and putting the security forces in charge of policing streets instead of the unpredictable local militias that once ran the show. The new security and stability has paid off: As much of the world economies are struggling, the West Bank's is growing at a healthy annual clip of about 8 percent. Much of this progress stems from Fayyad's simple strategy: Show Israel that Palestinian statehood is inevitable and beneficial for both sides of the barrier dividing the two lands.
"If we put together those institutions of state, who is going to be able to deny us that right to live as free people?" Fayyad told me. "Get that reality of state to grow in everyone, and -- and for it not to be seen as a threat to anyone."
But when we scratched beneath the surface, we found many West Bank residents uneasy with the idea of Palestinian forces working so closely with Israel -- especially when Israeli occupation interferes with their day-to-day life. Thousands of Palestinians spend hours each day waiting at checkpoints on their way to work; getting shouted at and searched by nervous young Israeli soldiers is part of the routine.
By working with the Israelis, the Palestinian National Security Forces will be the subject of intense public scrutiny. The average Palestinian will want to know that these new security forces are for their benefit and not exclusively for the Israelis.
This uneasiness is palpable in Hebron, one of the most volatile cities in the West Bank. When a family of Israeli settlers was killed there last year, Palestinian security forces rounded up some 700 West Bank residents with ties to Hamas. Many were held for months at a time, and we spoke to several who claimed they were tortured. But none were charged in the murders.
There's no doubt that Israel is under constant threat from its neighbors and that its leaders would be remiss in not obsessing over this fact. But the question that must be asked -- especially in the context of what's happening in Egypt -- is whether long-term stability is being sacrificed for short-term security. Will the West Bank -- and Israel -- be truly secure as long as its residents continue to feel their destiny is being determined by outside influences?
Dan Rather Reports airs Tuesdays on HDNet at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET.