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Palestinian police deploy in Gaza Strip
Updated: 2005-01-28 21:25

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip - Hundreds of Palestinian police deployed in the central and southern Gaza Strip on Friday, a day after the new Palestinian leadership banned civilians from carrying weapons and Israel's prime minister said conditions were ripe for a "historic" breakthrough toward peace.

The Israeli army chief on Friday, in turn, ordered his troops to halt operations in areas of Gaza where Palestinian troops have taken up positions, and to minimize arrest raids in the West Bank.

The change in troop deployment was the latest in a flurry of steps toward ending more than four years of fighting and resuming peace talks. Over the weekend, top Israelis and Palestinians are to set the terms for an Israeli troop pullback from West Bank towns, and an Israeli-Palestinian summit is expected soon.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas suffered a setback when his Fatah party was trounced by the militant Islamic group Hamas in local elections in 10 Gaza towns. The results could herald a similar strong showing for Hamas in parliamentary elections in July and give the group more leverage in power-sharing negotiations with Abbas.

However, it appeared Gaza residents were mostly voting on local issues and meant to punish Fatah for widespread government corruption, and were not necessarily endorsing Hamas' violent ideology.

Abbas has been trying to co-opt militants into the system, recently winning a pledge from them to temporarily halt attacks on Israel.

On Friday, armed Palestinian policemen left their barracks in a long convoy, heading for two of the most volatile areas, the refugee camps of Khan Younis and Rafah. Hundreds of Palestinians lined the streets to watch the convoys. "Look, we have an army and we didn't even know it," shouted one youth as police went by.

Areas of southern Gaza, particular along the border with Egypt and near a large bloc of Jewish settlements, have been flashpoints of violence, with militants firing guns, rockets and mortars at Israeli positions, and troops responding with deadly raids that left thousands of Palestinians homeless.

In the Rafah camp, perhaps hardest hit in the fighting, Palestinian police raised a flag atop a badly damaged house near an Israeli military patrol road on the border with Egypt.

Resident Sakhri Abu Tiyour, 48, who saw two of his 12 children seriously wounded by army fire and his house leveled by an army bulldozer, said he is tired of the fighting. "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."

Last Friday, Palestinian police fanned out across northern Gaza with the same mission, and since then, there have been few violent incidents there.

The police deployment was accompanied by a decree banning Palestinian civilians from holding weapons, in a nod to demands by Israel and the United States that militants, responsible for killing more than 1,000 Israelis, must be disarmed. It was also a message to Palestinians, that the Abbas regime will be based on law and order, and that police will not allow militants to strut in public with their weapons.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharo) praised the Palestinian leadership for its actions. "I believe that the conditions are now ripe to allow us and the Palestinians to reach a historic breakthrough in the relations between us," he told a convention of building contractors in Tel Aviv Thursday evening.

Sharon said if the Palestinians continue their present trend, Israel could coordinate its Gaza withdrawal with them. Originally Sharon planned the summer pullout as a unilateral step.

In Gaza City, meanwhile, thousands of Hamas supporters celebrated the election victory in a rally Friday, waving Hamas flags and distributing candy. Supporters chanted: "Hamas is the real way to reform and rebuilding."

According to unofficial results, Hamas won 77 out 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 it now controlled municipal councils in seven of the 10 towns.

Voters in 10 localities voted Thursday in the first-ever local elections in Gaza. The voting followed a round of elections in 26 West Bank communities on Dec. 23.

"We consider this victory as the victory of the Palestinian people," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "It's not the victory of somebody against somebody, the competition was to serve our people's interests."

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