Palestinian Unit Battles Gunmen In Test for U.S.-Funded Program

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

JERUSALEM, May 6 -- At least three people were wounded Tuesday as Palestinian security forces who were trained in a U.S.-funded program battled gunmen in a northern West Bank town long known for its lawlessness.

The operation marked the first major test for a group of Presidential Guard officers who are at the forefront of a $28 million U.S. effort to bolster the Palestinian Authority's security capabilities through training and equipment. The effort is considered vital as the Palestinian Authority negotiates a peace deal with Israel, which has sharply criticized the authority for not doing enough to crack down on armed groups.

In Tuesday's clashes, one person -- a 20-year-old student -- was critically wounded by a bullet to the head, security and medical officials said. Two other people were later shot in the legs.

Islamic Jihad said two of its fighters were among the injured.

The operation began before dawn with hundreds of Palestinian security officers rolling into the town of Qabatiyeh, just south of the city of Jenin and a stronghold of armed groups such as Islamic Jihad that have pledged to eradicate Israel. Exchanges of gunfire could be heard throughout the morning as the security forces attempted to impose control.

"If you're going to Qabatiyeh, you're not going after car thieves. It's a tough place," said a senior Western security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "This is a clear indication of resolve by Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad and President [Mahmoud] Abbas."

Fayyad and Abbas lead the Palestinian Authority, which is considered relatively moderate and holds sway in the West Bank.

Palestinian officials had complained before the deployment began that they did not receive equipment for the Presidential Guard that had been promised by the United States but blocked by Israel. The equipment had still not been received Tuesday.

In separate developments in Israel on Tuesday, police and prosecutors submitted a request to hear testimony from a foreigner who is believed to be at the center of a growing corruption scandal involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Late last week, police asked to question Olmert on short notice. Since then, Israel's newspapers, television networks and radio stations have been abuzz with speculation that the allegations will lead to an indictment and the prime minister's resignation.

Israeli officials have indicated that the case concerns allegations of bribery and that an American businessman is involved. However, a strict court-imposed gag order here prevents publication of any details.

Olmert, who has been investigated many times for alleged corruption, has steadfastly denied the latest allegations, describing them as "malicious and vicious rumors."

If Olmert is forced to step down, it could prove yet another obstacle for U.S.-backed peace talks that were revived in November but have yielded little public progress since then.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's lead negotiator and a fellow member of the centrist Kadima party, would be favored to replace Olmert should he resign. But fresh elections are also a possibility. In that case, the leader of the hawkish Likud Party, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, would be considered the front-runner, according to recent polls.

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