Palestinian forces deploy in West Bank city to limit Hamas
HEBRON, West Bank -- Nearly 600 newly trained Palestinian troops took up positions in this city Saturday as part of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' attempt to expand his control in the West Bank and keep the Islamic militant Hamas in line.
Hebron, a former Hamas stronghold, is the third Palestinian city to be reinforced with Abbas' forces. The pre-dawn deployment signaled growing security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The troops arrived before dawn, during the Jewish Sabbath, a time apparently chosen to prevent protests by hundreds of Israeli settlers who live in several heavily fortified enclaves in the city. Hebron is divided into an Israeli-controlled downtown area and the larger Palestinian-run sector of the city.
In recent months, Abbas has been trying to take over more areas of the West Bank, though Israel retains overall security control. Abbas' forces deployed first in Nablus and Jenin, and now in Hebron, targeting local thugs, criminals and Hamas supporters.
The Hamas militants seized control over Gaza by force in June 2007, leaving Abbas in control of the West Bank. Abbas has closed Hamas-linked organizations and arrested hundreds of supporters to prevent Hamas from taking over the West Bank.
Hamas accused Abbas of collaborating with Israel.
"This comes as a reward by the occupation forces after what they have done against Hamas, their non-stop efforts to eliminate Hamas," said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the militant group.
Several hundred Palestinian police officers were already stationed in Hebron before the arrival of the reinforcements.
The new contingent of 585 officers, some trained in Jordan under U.S. guidance, drove into Hebron in jeeps, vans and buses early Saturday and assembled at the city's security headquarters. By midmorning, they began patrolling city streets.
Hebron's Palestinian security chief, Samih Seifi, said he was determined to impose order. "We will arrest whoever tries to stop us, and we will not let anyone deter us," Seifi said.
The Palestinian forces will not patrol the Israeli-controlled sector.
In the Gaza Strip, three Palestinians were killed when a smuggling tunnel linking Gaza to Egypt collapsed, officials said. Egyptian medical official Imad Kharboush said the tunnel collapsed early Saturday while smugglers were digging an exit.
Since late January, 49 people have died in tunnel collapses.
Gazans use the tunnels to smuggle in cash, weapons and consumer goods, dodging an Israeli and Egyptian closure of the coastal territory. Israel only allows limited supplies into Gaza. Egypt sporadically permits sick Palestinians, students and pilgrims to leave Gaza through its territory.
In the West Bank, a 23-year-old Palestinian was seriously wounded by Israeli army fire during a clash in the refugee camp of Fara early Saturday, said medic Adnan Ghawanmeh.
Israeli forces entered the camp, apparently in search of a fugitive militant. Young men hurled rocks and firebombs at the soldiers, who responded with live fire, Palestinians said. An Israeli army spokesman said Palestinians also shot at the soldiers, who fired back.
Associated Press writers Ali Daraghmeh in Nablus, Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza and Ashraf Sweilam in Rafah, Egypt contributed to this report.