/ 25 October 2008

Palestinian security forces deploy in Hebron

More than 500 Palestinian security reinforcements deployed in the southern West Bank town of Hebron on Saturday as part of a widening crackdown in the occupied territory, officials said.

Around 500 Palestinian security forces took up positions before dawn in the flashpoint town without incident, said Hebron police chief Samih al-Saifi.

An Israeli security official confirmed the deployment and said it had taken place with the coordination of the Israeli army.

“Five hundred and fifty extra armed police were deployed in Hebron in coordination with the Israeli army to strengthen the Palestinian Authority in its fight against Hamas,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Israel has long feared a repeat in the West Bank of the Islamist movement’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, when it routed forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in a week of bloody battles.

The latest deployment is part of a widening crackdown that has seen hundreds of Palestinian security forces deploy in the northern West Bank towns of Jenin and Nablus, both of which were once militant strongholds.

It is also aimed at underpinning the United States-backed Middle East peace process which was formally relaunched nearly a year ago with the aim of creating a Palestinian state — talks which have thus far made little visible progress.

The Palestinians have not said publicly that the security plan is directed at Hamas, and Saifi would only say that the troops in Hebron were there to “provide order and security in the town”.

In recent months, however, Palestinian forces have arrested dozens of members of the Islamist group, shuttered several of its charities and organisations, and confiscated weapons and explosives.

A Hamas spokesperson in Gaza condemned the Hebron deployment, saying it “served the Zionist enemy” by targeting the Islamist movement.

“Their role is to curtail Hamas and take aim at the weapons of the resistance, not to enforce the law or protect citizens,” he said.

The conflict between Hamas and Abbas’s secular Fatah movement could worsen in the coming months with the two groups divided on when Abbas’s presidential term expires.

Hamas has said his constitutionally mandated four-year term ends in January, while Abbas’s supporters have said new presidential and parliamentary elections should be held together in January 2010.

With more than 160 000 Palestinian residents, Hebron is the largest town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and has long been a flashpoint in the Middle East conflict because of a settlement of around 800 hardline Jews in the heart of the town.

Settlers and Palestinians have frequently clashed near a tomb in the Old City believed to hold the remains of the biblical patriarch Abraham, a site revered by Jews and Muslims.

In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, a US-born Jewish settler, opened fire on Muslims praying inside the Ibrahimi mosque built on the site of the tomb, killing 29 Palestinians, including several women and children.

The settlement and the religious site are guarded by hundreds of Israeli soldiers who will remain in Hebron despite the deployment of the additional Palestinian forces.

Israel has said its force will continue to operate in all parts of the West Bank to prevent attacks on its citizens and West Bank settlers. – AFP