Some 200 Palestinian police sealed a crowded West Bank refugee camp yesterday and traded fire with militants holed up inside, the first major battle in President Mahmoud Abbas' campaign to assert control over gunmen and persuade Israel he can implement a future peace deal.
The confrontation erupted as Abbas assured visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that he has begun meeting his short-term peace obligations, including disarming militants and rounding up illegal weapons.
In the showdown, police officers took up rooftops on the edges of the Balata refugee camp, next to the city of Nablus, and over several hours exchanged sporadic fire with gunmen from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of Abbas' Fatah movement. Five civilians and a policeman were wounded.
The streets of the camp, a militant stronghold, were littered with rocks and overturned trash containers - a scene reminiscent of frequent Israeli army raids in recent years. Residents watched from their balconies. Near a mosque, police peeked around a corner, then fired down a narrow street.
Both sides said they would not back down.
"They are trying to enter the camp and we will not let them," Nasser Abu Aziz, an Al-Aqsa gunman, said in a telephone interview. "I'm in the middle of shooting, I can't talk much," he said, before hanging up.
Ziad al-Ali, a Palestinian security chief, said the Al-Aqsa Brigades must disband, noting that nearly all the group's members have accepted an amnesty deal with Israel, brokered by Abbas, in which they agreed to disarm.
"We had given them a deal with the Israelis, and there is no longer a need for them [the brigade] to exist," he said.
Yesterday's confrontation began after police seized a pistol from an Al-Aqsa member, and two of his friends then opened fire on the security forces.
Some Al-Aqsa gunmen have balked at handing over their weapons as part of the deal with Israel. During the second Palestinian uprising, which erupted in 2000, Nablus and Balata became increasingly lawless, and some gunmen involved in fighting Israeli soldiers also blackmailed and robbed local residents.
Last week, Abbas sent 300 additional police officers to Nablus, turning the city into a test ground for his new security campaign. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad said that if the security forces can impose control in chaotic Nablus, they would gradually try to do the same in other West Bank cities.
Israel has raised doubts about Abbas' ability to control the West Bank and implement any peace deal, after his security forces were defeated in a few days of fighting with the Islamic militant group Hamas in Gaza in June.
The security clampdown is also part of a Abbas' attempt to show that it is meeting his obligations under the first phase of the road map peace plan. The plan, dormant for four years, has been revived to help boost trust between Israelis and Palestinians ahead of the upcoming U.S.-hosted Mideast conference.
Under the plan, Israel has to freeze expansion of West Bank settlements, dismantle dozens of illegal settlement outposts, remove major West Bank roadblocks and redeploy troops.
The Palestinians have said they've made progress on their requirements, and that Israel must reciprocate. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that Israel is ready to do so, in principle, but suggested that the Palestinians haven't done much yet.
Also yesterday, international Mideast envoy Tony Blair urged Israelis to drop their skepticism about peace with the Palestinians, but said the Jewish state should not compromise its security demands.
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