Al Ram, West Bank - Residents in this small town were surprised last week to see armed Palestinian Authority security forces patrolling the streets. The area has become a drug-infested, crime-ridden hub for outlaws after years of Israeli neglect and because the PA wasn't allowed to operate in the area.
Once a thriving suburb of Jerusalem, Al Ram began to change when Israel started building the separation barrier in 2002. Eventually the town was surrounded by the wall on three sides, cutting off Al Ram from the eastern part of Jerusalem and causing residents to move and business owners to close up shop. Much of Al Ram's land was left on the Israeli side of the wall, and the town also was cut off from many nearby villages.
Once a commercial hub, it soon turned into a ghost town and after Israeli police patrols ended, criminals began taking advantage of the security limbo.
Last week's unprecedented operation carried out by Palestinian security forces to weed out criminals came as a welcome surprise to some officials.
"Al Ram is in a state of chaos," said Ali Maslamani, the town's mayor. "It has been like this for a very long time. Because of the occupation, weapons in the hands of outlaws are ubiquitous. Gunfire is heard on a daily basis, even armed robberies, attacks on citizens, stolen cars."
Drugs, murder and weapons in the hands of gangsters are everywhere.
Since November 7, Palestinian police have arrested dozens of men and women, some Israeli citizens, wanted on criminal charges, and handed them over to Israeli authorities.
"Yes, Al Ram is under Israeli control, but for years the Israeli police have not carried out its legal or moral obligations to protect citizens in this area," said Adnan Al Damiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian security forces.
"Drugs, murder and weapons in the hands of gangsters are everywhere," Al Damiri told Al Jazeera. "All those who should face justice now flee to these areas because they know no one can touch them there."
Even though it wasn't part of the Israeli-drawn municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, Al Ram was in many ways an integral part of East Jerusalem. But after the separation wall was erected, Al Ram ceased to be the doorway between Ramallah (and the northern West Bank) and the Holy City.
"There are a number of areas where, for more than two decades and due to the Oslo Accords, Palestinians were not afforded even the most basic services, such as a functional fire department or civilian police force," said Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). "The Israeli authorities failed to provide such services and forbade the PA from carrying out this work without first obtaining Israeli permission for each specific act."
In Al Ram, the onus is on residents to hire private companies to collect garbage, roads are dotted with pot-holes, children's parks are few and far between, and schools are neglected. But because the sole purpose of this current operation is to stop criminal acts, the PA will be unable to address any of these issues, Al Damiri said.
According to Maslamani, there have been some instances where Palestinian security officers - after coordinating with Israeli authorities - patrolled areas such as Al Ram, but that was too few and far between to matter, he said.
"In the past, Palestinian security personnel would only be allowed to enter these areas in very few numbers, without official uniforms and weapons," he said. "Criminals wouldn't take them seriously. This week, no fewer than 900 security personnel were here in their official uniforms and carrying their guns."
The timeframe for these patrols is unknown, but Al Ram's mayor said it may be a 10-day operation. Al Damiri said he was hopeful operations may take place in other towns such as Abu Dis, Eizarieh and Anata.
The Palestinian operation comes at a time when reports have emerged that Israel will use the route of the West Bank's separation barrier to serve as a future border. Israel had previously said the part-wall, part-fence structure was necessary to stop suicide bombers. But its erection inside the West Bank and away from 1967's internationally recognised "Green Line" led many Palestinians to believe it was a tool to demarcate future borders.
"Israel's opening position was that the border was only the route of the separation barrier, and not the 1967 lines as the Palestinians have demanded," media reports quoted Israeli negotiators as having told their Palestinian counterparts, just hours before the arrival of US Secretary of State John Kerry in Israel and the West Bank.
The PA wants to show Israel just how strong its security forces are and, therefore, how worthy it is to 'control' more territory, particularly if the Americans and Israelis continue to push for yet another interim agreement.
For many years, Palestinian communities close to Jerusalem's city limits but beyond the wall voiced fears they would eventually be cut off from the Holy City.
Buttu said there may be more to the Palestinian security operation than ensuring a better quality of life for those living in places such as Al Ram.
"While it is important to provide such basic services to Palestinians, this may not be what is taking place here," he said. "I fear that the PA will once again act as Israel's security subcontractor through increased 'security cooperation', thereby serving to promote Israel's interests, rather than the interests of Palestinians.
"The PA wants to show Israel just how strong its security forces are and, therefore, how worthy it is to 'control' more territory, particularly if the Americans and Israelis continue to push for yet another interim agreement," Buttu added.
The operation comes as a result of extensive security coordination between Israel and the PA, which experts say is at an all-time high. Al Damiri said the PA has been pushing for this for quite some time, and it took a lot of "pressure from friendly parties" to get Israel to agree to Palestinian demands.
Over the past few years, opposition to joint security coordination has grown among Palestinians. With settlements being built at a fast pace and little to show in way of the peace process, some Palestinians view the local security forces as a tool to crush public dissent and protect Israeli interests.
"The coordination and joint police matters will continue in the long term and has strengthened over the last eight years with the assistance of the EUPOL COPPS," said Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesman, referring to the EU-backed mission training Palestinian police forces.