Palestinians work to secure Gaza town

Police glad to be back on the job after four years of conflict with Israel

Palestinian police officers listen Sunday to their commanding officer at their temporary base before their shift change around the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 10:39 p.m.
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip - Palestinian police checkpoints dotted this Gaza town near the border fence with Israel on Sunday, with officers patrolling main roads and guarding orange groves to stop militants from firing homemade rockets into southern Israel.
The residents of Beit Hanoun expressed relief at the massive police presence. Their town had been used freely by militants as a launching ground for rockets, often provoking devastating Israeli military responses.
The policemen, in turn, said they were happy to be back on the job after more than four years of bloody conflict with Israel. The officers didn't seem to expect any violent encounters with militants and refused to discuss what they had been instructed to do in case masked men showed up with rocket launchers.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas ordered the deployment - some 3,000 officers have been patrolling the northern third of the Gaza Strip since the weekend - after he already had assurances from armed groups that they were suspending rocket and mortar fire.
At one police checkpoint on the edge of Beit Hanoun, just a half mile from the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing, a veteran Palestinian officer in his 50s said he felt a new optimism among local residents and that there was widespread support for the emerging cease-fire deal.
"We're convinced it's the right thing to do," said the officer, who would only identify himself as Abu Wael. "Everybody feels this way."
In Beit Hanoun, there was no evidence of militant activity Sunday. Police checkpoints were set up every few blocks, with armed men manning a series of small stone buildings. Officers in pickup trucks patrolled the road closest to the border with Israel and other men scoured the town on foot.
Abu Wael and a contingent of two dozen men under his command manned an outpost on a main road, checking passers-by and inspecting vehicles. On one side of the road, armed officers guarded an orange grove to prevent militants from using it to fire Qassam rockets at Israel.
Before the policemen came, residents say, militants roamed freely in the area, despite the efforts of private security guards to keep them away.
Ahmed Zaaneen, 67, a retired school principal from Beit Hanoun, said people in the town had paid a heavy price for the Israeli incursions that invariably followed the militants' attacks.
"We're tired," he said. "We've had a rough four years. We've lost a lot of land. We've lost a lot of trees."
From Abu Wael's command post, evidence of the destruction was everywhere. Homes were riddled with bullet holes, greenhouses gutted, and fields laid to waste by massive Israeli plows
On Sunday morning, several busloads of Palestinians traveled to northern Gaza to welcome the forces, shaking hands, distributing packets of sweets and warmly embracing the officers.
Rami Barrawi, a 23-year-old college student from the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, said a lot was at stake in the new police deployment. "Everybody is calling us terrorists," he said. "It's time to prove them wrong. It's time to show that we are people of peace."
The Palestinian rocket fire has killed five Israelis in the nearby border town of Sderot, including a 17-year-old girl who died last week. Dozens of residents of northern Gaza have been killed in Israeli incursions launched in response to the rocket attacks.
No rockets have been fired for the past five days, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that Israel would unleash a major military offensive if the attacks were to resume.
Abu Wael himself said the deployment was just what he and his men needed to redeem their reputations and show that they can get the job done. During the fighting with Israel, Palestinian police had largely stayed off the streets, for fear of being targeted by Israeli troops. Israel has said many of the officers participated in the fighting, and has frequently hit police installations in missile strikes.
"This move is an offering to the international community, to the world, to Israel," he said. "We lost our credibility in the last four years. It's time to get it back and this is how to do it."

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