Palestinian police deploy in Gaza Strip


Palestinian security officers run to their vehicles during the deployment of the forces in the area around Beit Lahiya, north of the Gaza Strip, on Friday.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, January 22, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 21, 2005 at 10:16 p.m.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Thousands of armed Palestinian police took up positions in the northern Gaza Strip on Friday to prevent attacks on Israel, and Islamic militants said they were suspending rocket fire - major steps toward a possible truce after more than four years of bloody Mideast conflict.

In another sign that a cease-fire deal could be imminent, a Palestinian official said after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the militant group Hamas met in Gaza that Egypt likely would host a high-level meeting between the two sides in Cairo soon to finalize an agreement.

The official refused to detail the expected deal but said on condition of anonymity that talks were moving in a "positive direction." The Cairo talks, he said, would be held after the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, which ends Sunday.

The Bush administration said Friday it was taking advantage of a lull in terror attacks to send the State Department's ranking Mideast official to the region to assess chances of serious peacemaking.

The announcement of next week's trip by Assistant Secretary of State William Burns to Israel, Palestinian areas and Egypt was coupled with a positive U.S. response to thousands of armed Palestinian police taking up positions in northern Gaza to prevent attacks on Israel.

"We have always stressed how important it is for the Palestinians to organize themselves to end the violence, and we welcome steps that are being taken in that direction," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Abbas hopes to co-opt the militants into halting violence instead of cracking down on them as Israel demands.

A lull in four years of fighting could lead to a renewal of long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Similar negotiations have failed in the past, and Israel is balking at a key demand by the militants: a guarantee to halt military operations, including arrest raids and targeted killings of wanted men. Israel's deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim, said Friday that Israel would respond with "great force" to renewed rocket fire.

A 17-year-old Israeli girl wounded in a rocket attack last week died Friday of her injuries.

However, militants have not fired rockets since Wednesday, and Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri told The Associated Press that the group was suspending such attacks.

"One can't be negotiating and firing rockets at the same time. It just doesn't work," he said.

In his meetings with Hamas and other groups, Abbas also is trying to forge agreement on a joint political platform that would give him a stronger mandate in future negotiations with Israel. The document being considered calls for establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, al-Masri said.

Hamas is pledged to Israel's destruction and has carried out many suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis. But in the past it has indicated a willingness to consider long-term truces.

Throughout the day Friday, some 3,000 Palestinian police took up positions in the northern half of Gaza, security officials said. Over the weekend, troops also will be deployed in the southern half.

After the outbreak of fighting in 2000, Palestinian police increasingly stayed off the streets for fear of being targeted by Israeli troops. Israel has said many members of the Palestinian security forces were involved in the fighting and has repeatedly hit police positions.

In Friday's deployment, some officers took up posts they abandoned in the past and began checking vehicles driving close to Israeli army positions. From the town of Beit Lahiya, a frequent rocket-launching area, five dozen members of Palestinian military intelligence, wearing red berets, set out on patrol in new pickup trucks.

"We've received orders to deploy all along the northern border areas to take complete control," said the group's commander, Ismail Dahdouh.

Israeli officials said it was too soon to pass judgment on the Palestinian effort. Boim, the deputy defense minister, indicated that Israel would not promise now to halt military operations, but the issue could be discussed in future talks between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"I assume that further down the line, there will be a meeting, and we'll see exactly what Abu Mazen wants," Boim told Israel Radio, using Abbas' nickname.

Sharon sent messages to Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to mark the Eid al-Adha holiday, which began Thursday. Sharon wrote that he hopes the entire region will be blessed by peace and prosperity, Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said.

Abbas responded that the two sides should work together to reach a peace agreement.

"We are extending maximum effort to carry out our obligation to stop violence against Israelis everywhere," Erekat said. "We urge the Israeli side to return to the negotiating table so we can have a declaration of a mutual cessation of violence."

In further signs of easing tensions, the army opened the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border, the Palestinians' only link to the Arab world, to incoming traffic. The crossing had been closed since a Dec. 12 attack on the Israeli military post there killed six people.

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