Police and militants fight in West Bank

May 07, 2008|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian policemen dispatched last week to an unruly West Bank district clashed yesterday with Islamic militants there, wounding two of them during a crackdown that could influence peace talks with Israel.

It was the first such confrontation since 480 police reinforcements marched into the city of Jenin before thousands of cheering residents Saturday to launch "Operation Smile and Hope."

Jenin and outlying towns and villages, protected until then by a police force of 150, have been troubled by criminal gangs. The area is also a base for Islamic Jihad, an armed group that poses a threat to Israel but not to the local authorities or population.

Israel, which controls much of the West Bank, permitted the police deployment as a test of the Palestinian Authority's ability to govern a would-be independent state. Israeli officials say their army will not withdraw from the West Bank until Palestinians show they can rein in groups that attack Israelis.

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

Yesterday's fighting in the town of Qabatiyah, three miles south of Jenin, demonstrated that the police are willing to enter a stronghold of the militants and confront them, at least in self-defense.

Diyab Ali, commander of Palestinian forces in the West Bank, said police shot into a group of about 20 Islamic Jihad members who had approached a police station yesterday trying to force the release of an arrested man. Two militants were hit in the legs.

Islamic Jihad gave a different account on its Web site, saying its members came under fire while walking near the police station on their way to a meeting. The group has accused the Palestinian Authority of working, with U.S. assistance, in Israel's interest.

Hundreds of policemen entered the town before dawn. Police said criminals opened fire on one of their patrols and a 21-year-old university student suffered a head wound in the crossfire. He was listed in critical condition at a hospital. Officials said 11 people have been arrested and several stolen cars have been seized in the crackdown since Saturday.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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