- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2008

HEBRON, West Bank | Human rights activists and Palestinian analysts say the deployment of Palestinian policemen in Hebron, intended to bolster prospects for statehood, could backfire by strengthening the militant Islamic group Hamas.

Many Palestinians living in the biblical city say heavy-handed tactics by Palestinian police also could lead to renewed gunbattles between the rival factions.

The police offensive has boosted the number of political prisoners in Palestinian jails to about 200, human rights groups say.

The day after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the West Bank town of Jenin in early August and held it up as a model of security progress, dozens of police officers went house to house in Hebron after a traffic accident.

Angry local Palestinians called the road accident an excuse for the police to search a neighborhood where many residents are loyal to Hamas.

“People are coming and telling me that ‘we wanted an effective government, but not in this way.’ They are coming to me and saying, ‘Do something!’ Everyone is angry,” said Sheik Abdel Khader al-Jaberi, who heads Hebron’s most powerful clan.

“I’m afraid there’s going to be an intifada [uprising], not against the [Israeli] army, but against these [Palestinian] soldiers.”

With its population of militant Jewish settlers protected by the Israeli army, Hebron is known for clashes between Palestinians and Israelis. But tensions between Palestinian factions - Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, which dominates the Palestinian Authority - have become paramount in recent months.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights has criticized the Palestinian Authority for using “excessive force” in making arrests.

The Palestinian police told the human rights watchdog that its officers were shot at during house-to-house searches.

“Everybody knows that Hebron is a stronghold of Hamas. That means it´s a real challenge” for the Palestinian Authority, said Raj Sourani, director of the human rights group.

Mr. Sourani said that both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are arresting operatives of the other party in an effort to gain leverage over each other.

“These are the symptoms of the conflict between the two parties. It puts more problems and obstacles vis-a-vis dialogue and reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas,” Mr. Sourani said.

Ever since Hamas overran Gaza in June 2007, the two parties have been in a power struggle. Though the Islamic militants are much weaker in the West Bank, some fear Hebron could be fertile ground to consolidate a beachhead.

Wearing blue fatigues under equipment vests that read “Special Police Forces” in English, members of the newly deployed Palestinian security detail brandish M-16 and Kalashnikov assault rifles. They patrol the city in police vans, though a good deal of their work is focused on the villages outside of the city, said Hebron Gov. Hussein al-Awaj.

Spokesmen for the security forces in Hebron reject allegations of a political witchhunt. The police campaign is focusing on criminals rather than Hamas members, said Mr. al-Awaj, who belongs to the Palestinian Authority government.

He said the police force in Hebron over the past month got 500 reinforcements to pursue criminals for tax evasion and fraud. “The main target of the deployment is to demonstrate peace and security,” he said.

Overhauling security forces is one of the cardinal Palestinian confidence-building measures aimed at bolstering peace negotiations with the Israelis.

At the entrance to the city, a police unit pulls over trucks to check for contraband.

“Our role is to keep security and search for illegal smugglers,” said Ziyyad Abu Hadid, an officer at the checkpoint.

However, Hamas last week seized upon the crackdown as a last-minute excuse to skip reconciliation talks in Egypt with Fatah.

On the agenda was an Egyptian proposal aimed at restoring the unity government that had existed before Hamas’ 2007 takeover in Gaza.

The decision by Hamas to boycott the talks ratcheted up concerns about the outbreak of a new conflict when Mr. Abbas’ term as president ends Jan. 9.

Hamas-backed lawmaker Nadir al-Zahrir said that in the absence of talks, relations between Hamas and Fatah are deteriorating toward a new crisis.

Mr. al-Zahrir accused the Palestinian Authority of trying to consolidate its hold over the streets in anticipation of a power struggle after Mr. Abbas’ term ends.

“The [Palestinian Authority] is creating a new reality in the streets. The main purpose of the deployment is to crush the opposition and destroy the resistance,” he said.

Even some members of Fatah question the value of the recent security deployments.

“There are people who like to talk about the big successes in Jenin and Hebron,” said former Fatah lawmaker Kadoura Fares. “I think it´s a big illusion. If it’s not part of a genuine political negotiation, it’s liable to collapse.”

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