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Palestinian officers set to protect settlers

Josef Federman Associated Press

JERUSALEM – The Palestinians are recruiting thousands of police in the Gaza Strip to prevent attacks on Jewish settlers and soldiers during Israel’s planned pullout from the area this summer, a security official said Monday, a significant step toward coordination after months of deadlock and years of bloody conflict.

The new signs of cooperation, including a meeting of technical experts late Monday, came despite a confrontation at a disputed holy site in Jerusalem in which Israeli police hurled stun grenades to disperse hundreds of Palestinian stone-throwers.

The violence erupted on “Jerusalem Day,” when Israel marks the anniversary of its capture of east Jerusalem – home to the city’s holy sites and Arab population – in the 1967 Mideast war.

When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his Gaza withdrawal plan last year, he envisioned the pullout as a unilateral act meant to boost Israel’s security after several years of fighting. The pullout also includes uprooting four isolated settlements in the West Bank.

Since the election of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian leader following the death of Yasser Arafat in November, Israel has expressed a willingness to coordinate the withdrawal. Those efforts, however, have yielded little progress.

Some 1.3 million Palestinians live in Gaza, an impoverished, densely populated area where the militant group Hamas is popular. Israel wants assurances that the 8,500 settlers slated for evacuation, and the soldiers being sent to carry out the mission, won’t be harmed.

Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said the Palestinians are recruiting 5,600 police officers in Gaza to ensure security during the withdrawal. He said they want to prevent damage to abandoned properties and ensure that Israelis are not attacked.

“The plan includes protecting any installations or houses or facilities that Israel leaves, and to prevent any action from the Palestinian factions,” he said.

The Palestinian forces are ready to coordinate their actions with Israel or act on their own, he said, adding that he does not expect any trouble from militant groups, which have largely been honoring a four-month cease-fire with Israel.

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