Palestinian forces plan for border duty

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Presaging a police crackdown designed to halt deadly rocket fire, Palestinian security forces prepared yesterday for an imminent deployment along Israel's border.

At the same time, Israel agreed to resume security coordination with Palestinian forces, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met again with leaders of armed factions to try to persuade them to end attacks on Israeli settlements and towns.

Israel had severed all contact with Abbas' government and threatened a major military offensive in Gaza after an ambush last week at a border crossing that killed six Israelis.

Violence has surged in Gaza in the year since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced plans to remove all Jewish settlements from the area beginning next summer. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other armed factions want to portray the planned pullout as an Israeli defeat under fire.

Amid heavy Israeli and international pressure on Abbas to rein in the gunmen, yesterday's developments seemed to scale back tensions, if only a bit.

Security officials from both sides met last night at the Erez crossing to Gaza to discuss how to stop rocket attacks.

"Preparations are under way to deploy Palestinian national security soldiers along the borders to stop any sort of violations," Lt. Gen. Abdel Razek Majaide, Gaza's top commander, told Palestinian radio.

Provided Israel agrees not to target the troops, Palestinian checkpoints that were dismantled or destroyed after the start of intifada fighting in September 2000 were expected to be re-established near Jewish settlements and on the border.

Palestinian forces were last deployed on the Israel-Gaza border during a two-month cease-fire negotiated by Abbas when he served briefly as prime minister in 2003.

While Sharon agreed yesterday to a Palestinian request for security coordination, he did not lift the diplomatic boycott.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have sent mixed signals about their readiness for a cease-fire. They insist they won't relinquish their weapons but also have indicated they will consider a truce if Israel reciprocates.

Palestinian legislator Ziad Abu Amr said negotiations between Abbas and the militants were progressing.

"Both sides recognize the urgency. Perhaps we are closer than any time before to reaching an agreement. ... If the Israelis are serious, they will have to give Abu Mazen time," he said, using Abbas' nickname.

As ordinary Gazans did last-minute shopping for the Eid al-Adha holiday that starts today, Abbas took pains to demonstrate the seriousness of his mission, running ads in newspapers saying he would not have time to hold customary holiday receptions for well-wishers.

In a sign that his demand for the rule of law might be taking hold amid Gaza's chaos, scores of civil police wearing fluorescent vests and driving baby-blue squad cars were deployed in population centers. Yet violence flared. The Israeli army said its troops shot to death two militants as they crawled toward Gaza's fenced border, a rocket attack wounded two soldiers near the Erez crossing, and two mortar bombs hit a Jewish settlement but caused no injuries.

On Tuesday, a Hamas suicide bomber killed an Israeli security agent and wounded seven Israelis at a checkpoint near the Gush Katif bloc of Jewish settlements in southern Gaza.

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