Israel army chief orders military raids halted along Gaza Strip
RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- Israel's army chief ordered his troops Friday to halt raids in the Gaza Strip and move against West Bank militants only with his approval, a major policy reversal after more than four years of fighting and a key step toward a truce with the Palestinians.
Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon issued the orders just hours after Palestinian police completed a deployment in Gaza, taking up positions in the central and southern areas of the coastal strip to prevent attacks on Israeli targets. Police deployed in northern Gaza last week.
But the fragility of the newfound cooperation between Israel and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was underscored Friday with a victory by the Islamic militant group Hamas in Gaza's first-ever municipal elections.
The results could signal a strong showing for Hamas in July parliamentary elections and give the group -- which opposes the existence of Israel -- more leverage in power-sharing negotiations with Abbas, who has coaxed them into an informal cease-fire.
The change in Israel's troop deployment was the latest in a flurry of steps toward ending more than four years of fighting and resuming peace talks. In the coming days, top Israeli and Palestinian officials will set the terms for an Israeli troop pullback from West Bank towns, and an Israeli-Palestinian summit is expected soon.
Yaalon said Israel would halt military activity in areas of Gaza where Palestinian police have been deployed. Israeli troops will still maintain positions along main roads and near Jewish settlements in Gaza.
Yaalon also said arrest raids in the West Bank must be minimized and will require his personal approval. Soldiers would only target Palestinian militants "if there is an immediate threat by active terror cells, and only with explicit authorization" of the army chief, an army statement said.
Gideon Meir, a senior official at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Israel is trying to reward Abbas for his efforts to prevent violence.
Still, Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said Israel must go further.
"We call upon the Israelis to announce a full stop of violence against Palestinians everywhere, to match our commitment to stop violence against Israelis everywhere," Erekat said.
Hundreds of Palestinian police spread out in the central and southern Gaza Strip on Friday, completing a deployment ordered by Abbas last week to halt attacks on Israeli targets.
Areas of southern Gaza, particularly along the border with Egypt and near a large bloc of Jewish settlements, have been flashpoints of violence. Militants have frequently fired guns, rockets and mortars at Israeli positions, and troops have responded with deadly raids that left thousands of Palestinians homeless.
More than 3,000 Palestinians have died in the four years of fighting.
In the Rafah refugee camp, perhaps hardest hit by the violence, the arrival of Palestinian police brought a sigh of relief from residents.
"It's great that they (the policemen) are here. Maybe now they can stop the fighters from shooting at the Israelis, and the Israelis from shooting at us," said Sakhri Abu Tiyour, 48.
Two of his 12 children have been seriously wounded by army fire, and his house was leveled by an army bulldozer.
On Jan. 21, Palestinian police fanned out across northern Gaza with the same security mission, and there have been few violent incidents in the area since.
The police deployment was accompanied by a decree banning Palestinian civilians from holding weapons -- a nod to demands by Israel and the United States that militants, responsible for killing more than 1,000 Israelis, must be disarmed.
"I feel that we are again approaching a new age," Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said in a panel discussion between Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the World Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
While Abbas, elected in a presidential poll earlier this month, remains popular with the Palestinian public, his Fatah party is tainted by years of corruption under his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, who died Nov. 11.
Fatah was trounced by Hamas in local elections in 10 Gaza towns, according to results released Friday.
In Gaza City, thousands of Hamas supporters celebrated the election victory in a rally, waving Hamas flags and distributing candy. Supporters chanted: "Hamas is the real way to reform and rebuilding!"
"They have clean hands and are not corrupt," said Radawan Shabat, a 65-year-old farmer in northern Gaza who voted for the group, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks.
According to unofficial results, Hamas won 77 of 118 seats in 10 districts, election officials said. Fatah won 26 seats, independents took 14 and the radical Popular Front won one seat. Hamas officials confirmed the results and said the group now controlled municipal councils in seven of the 10 towns.
Voters in 10 localities voted Thursday in the first-ever local elections in Gaza. There also were elections in 26 West Bank communities last month.