October 24, 2008 - 8:00pm

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sent hundreds of security officers into Hebron on Saturday as part of a Western-backed campaign to strengthen his control over the occupied West Bank.

Israel, which is trying to bolster Abbas against his Hamas rivals, approved the deployment of some 550 armed officers in the biggest West Bank city, a frequent flashpoint between Palestinians and Jewish settlers.

"We are serious and willing to arrest anyone who disturbs law and order ... starting with illegal armed groups and whoever deals with illegal arms," said Samih al-Saifi, the Palestinian security chief for the Hebron area.

Abbas is under pressure to assert control over the West Bank so U.S.-sponsored talks with Israel can progress. Abbas's administration complains about Israeli intervention in the deployment of its forces, and that continued Israeli raids in the West Bank undermine its credibility.

Hamas Islamists seized the Gaza Strip after routing Abbas's forces in 2007. Abbas then sacked a Hamas-led government and appointed a new administration in the West Bank, where his Fatah faction remains dominant.

Palestinian officials said Abbas had postponed a meeting scheduled for Monday with outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose Kadima party leaders are busy trying to forge a new government coalition.

An Israeli security source said the Palestinian deployment in Hebron had been coordinated with the Israeli army and that the Palestinian force would not be allowed to intervene in areas where Jewish settlers live.

"They are meant to police the community and strengthen the Palestinian Authority's ability to fight Hamas," the source said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said the deployment was part of a campaign that has been successful in other West Bank cities.

"Without enforcing law and order, the Palestinians can't live a sustainable life and have a sustainable economy," Fayyad said.

Some 650 heavily guarded Jewish settlers live in the Israeli-controlled section of Hebron, among about 30,000 Palestinians. About 180,000 Palestinians live in the city overall.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017