- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2008

QABATIYEH, West Bank (AP) — Hundreds of Palestinian police came under fire when they deployed in this militant stronghold as President Mahmoud Abbas pushed ahead with a U.S.-backed program to assert authority in the West Bank.

Sporadic exchanges of gunfire were heard throughout the morning between officers, who used the small town’s buildings for cover, and militants in surrounding hills. The clashes wounded three people, drove residents off the streets and forced businesses to remain shuttered.

Deployment of Palestinian security forces in the northern West Bank is a critical test of Abbas’ ability to control his own territory and is key to answering critics who argue he is too weak to implement a future peace agreement with Israel.

Israel has repeatedly complained that Abbas is not moving fast enough against militants in the West Bank, the only Palestinian territory he controls, and the success of his security campaign could play a large part in the peace talks.

As part of Abbas’ plan, Palestinian police took up positions in the West Bank city of Nablus several months ago and moved into the Jenin district last week.

Qabatiyeh, known as a stronghold of the militant group Islamic Jihad, is seen as a particularly difficult challenge because it is run by large clans that have benefited from the chaos of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Before dawn, Palestinian security forces entered the town of about 15,000 people six miles from the northern edge of the West Bank. Security commander Diab Ali said police officers were attacked by militants, while an Islamic Jihad leader said police fired first.

A 21-year-old university student was critically wounded, and two other people were hurt.

Jamal Zakout, a Palestinian government spokesman, said police would not back down.

“We know that in this town, there are some who are accustomed to lawlessness and benefited from it,” he said. “The government is determined to impose law and order, by force, in this town,” he said.

Abbas’ status took a major blow last June when the Islamic militants of the Hamas movement defeated his numerically superior security forces in the Gaza Strip and seized control of the coastal territory.

His control of the West Bank remains partly dependent on Israel’s ability to keep the militants in check. Unlike Gaza, the Israeli military still occupies the West Bank, patrolling many areas, conducting arrest raids against suspected militants and operating hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints.

Backed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who held talks in the region this week, Abbas demands that Israel remove many of the roadblocks, which are stifling Palestinian economic development and social life.

In other developments, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman will head to Israel on Monday as part of efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Israeli officials said.

Gaza militants routinely fire rockets into southern Israel, and Israel often responds with deadly incursions and airstrikes in Gaza.

Israel and Hamas both seem eager to halt the violence. Hamas wants Gaza’s borders to be reopened, while Israel wants Hamas to release a captive Israeli soldier.

A Hamas militant was killed Tuesday by an Israeli airstrike in northern Gaza, Palestinian medics said. The Israeli military said one of its aircraft attacked a group of armed men near the Gaza-Israel border.

Associated Press writer Ali Daraghmeh in Nablus contributed to this report.

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