Palestinian police deploy in Gaza Strip

Hundreds of Palestinian police deployed in the central and southern Gaza Strip on Friday, a day after the new Palestinian leadership banned civilians from carrying weapons and Israel’s prime minister said conditions are ripe for a “historic” breakthrough toward peace.

The deployment, meant to prevent attacks on Israelis, was the latest in a flurry of steps toward ending more than four years of fighting and resuming peace talks.

Over the weekend, top Israeli and Palestinian officials are to set the terms for an Israeli troop pullback from West Bank towns, and an Israeli-Palestinian summit is expected soon.

But the ruling Palestinian leaders suffered a setback when their Fatah party was overwhelmingly defeated by the militant Islamic group Hamas in local Gaza elections on Thursday.

The poll results could give Hamas more leverage in its negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas over power sharing. The results could herald a similar strong showing for Hamas in legislative elections set for July.

Abbas has been trying to co-opt militants into the system, recently winning a pledge from them to halt attacks on Israel temporarily.
The Gaza vote was not expected to hinder his new government seriously.

On Friday, armed Palestinian police officers left their barracks in a long convoy, heading for two of the most volatile areas, the refugee camps of Khan Younis and Rafah. From there, militants have launched hundreds of rocket and mortar attacks at Israeli troops and Jewish settlements, and both camps have been scenes of repeated clashes between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops.

Hundreds of Palestinians lined the streets to watch the police convoy of jeeps and buses moving through the roads of Khan Younis.

“Look, we have an army and we didn’t even know it,” shouted one youth as the police went by.

An additional 600 officers deployed in central Gaza, after a morning drill in a sports stadium in the town of Deir el-Balah.

“This decision was taken by the Palestinian leadership in order to secure the Palestinian people and to secure our land. We will protect security in our area, and along the borders,” said their commander, Major Hamza Shihade.

Last Friday, Palestinian police fanned out across northern Gaza with the same mission, and since then, there have been few violent incidents there.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon praised the Palestinian leadership for its actions.

“I believe that the conditions are now ripe to allow us and the Palestinians to reach a historic breakthrough in the relations between us,” he told a convention of building contractors in Tel Aviv on Thursday evening.

Sharon said if the Palestinians continue their present trend, Israel could coordinate its Gaza withdrawal with them. Originally Sharon planned the summer pull-out as a unilateral step.

Results from local elections in Gaza showed Hamas winning 77 out of the 118 seats in 10 districts, election officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Official results were to be announced at midday on Friday.

The ruling Fatah party won 26 seats, independents took 14 and the radical Popular Front won one seat, the officials said. Hamas officials confirmed the results.

Voters in 10 localities voted on Thursday in the first-ever local elections in Gaza. The voting followed a round of elections in 26 West Bank communities on December 23.

Hamas planned a large celebration rally later on Friday.

“We consider this victory as the victory of the Palestinian people,” said Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri. “It’s not the victory of somebody against somebody; the competition was to serve our people’s interests.”

Abu Zuhri said Hamas has control of seven of the 10 localities. It ran in nine.

The Hamas victories reflected widespread support in Gaza for the violent Islamic movement, which provides welfare, schools and kindergartens to the impoverished people in the territory, alongside its attacks against Israel.

The decree banning Palestinian civilians from holding weapons was a gesture toward Israel and the United States, which have long demanded disarming of militant groups responsible for attacks that have killed more than 1 000 Israelis. It was also a message to Palestinians, that the Abbas regime will be based on law and order, and that police will not allow militants to strut in public with their weapons.

The decree, issued by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, emphasised the law-and-order issue, noting “the increase in the number of violent crimes in all the governates because of the chaos of weapons”.

Toward the beginning of four years of conflict, Israel targeted Palestinian police posts for destruction after charges that the official security forces were involved in violence. The Israelis declared that they would open fire on any armed Palestinian—in effect disarming the police.

The main result was weakening the authority and power of the official police forces. The vacuum was filled by the large militant groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, as well as small armed gangs, ruling neighbourhoods and refugee camps by force of arms and often clashing among themselves.

Samar Aghar (30) said she fled five gunmen firing on Thursday in her city of Nablus.

“I hate the uprising and I hate politics,” she said. “Weapons should be kept well out of people’s hands. I’m eager to see the Palestinian Authority restore law and order.”

In another development, Palestinian officials said Abbas rejected the resignation of National Security Adviser Jibril Rajoub, who is now expected to return to his post.—Sapa-AP

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