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Israel steps back to help Abbas halt the violence (LONDON TIMES) From Ian MacKinnon in Jerusalem, ISRAEL 01/29/05)Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,251-1460728,00.html LONDON TIMES LONDON TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
ISRAELíS army chief yesterday ordered commanders to end offensive operations in areas of Gaza where Palestinian police are being deployed in an effort to thwart attacks by militants.

Lieutenant-General Moshe Yaalon also said that the targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants in the West Bank would be dramatically curtailed, and sanctioned only if there were an imminent risk of attack on Israelis.

The shift in tactics is the latest sign that Israel is eager to help Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, to build on a period of calm and to lay the foundations for a ground-breaking summit with Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister.

But Mr Abbas faced a fresh challenge when Hamas, the hardline Islamist movement, yesterday scored a resounding victory over the Presidentís Fatah party in Gazaís first municipal elections. Hamas won two thirds of the 118 seats and seven out of ten local authorities where elections were held.

Fatahís defeat signalled that the electorate had grown weary of cronyism and corruption. It also showed that Mr Abbas would have to give greater weight to the Islamic militant organisation as he tries to forge a ceasefire.

Yet the moves to scale back Israeli army activity in the Palestinian territories, reopen crossing points into Gaza and ease passage along roads in the West Bank will boost support for Mr Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen.

Thousands of Palestinian police left their barracks yesterday to take up positions in southern and central Gaza, matching the forces that fanned out across the north a week ago to prevent the firing of rockets into Israel.

They set up posts in Deir al-Balah, Khan Younis and Rafah refugee camps, the scenes of some of the most concerted attacks by militants on Israeli forces and Jewish settlements.

The deployment may presage Palestinian police assuming control of cities in the West Bank. Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli Defence Minister, is to meet Mohammad Dahlan, a key security adviser to Mr Abbas, tomorrow to discuss the withdrawal of Israeli forces.

Other moves that Israel is said to be considering include the release of up to 900 Palestinian prisoners ahead of the meeting between Mr Abbas and Mr Sharon, that could take place in the next two weeks.

The release of prisoners was one of the key demands made by Hamas in talks with Mr Abbas as he tried to secure agreement for a ceasefire with the movement and Islamic Jihad. Hamas may seek to capitalise on its success in Gaza by contesting elections to the Palestinian Parliament in July.

ďFatah will have to get its act together and make real reforms to convince people itís serious about change or it will lose heavily in the parliamentary elections,Ē Salah Abdel Shafi, a political analyst, predicted. (Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd. 01/29/05)

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