YATTA, West Bank (AP) – Palestinian police went door-to-door early Friday in this West Bank town, arresting 30 suspected criminals in one of the biggest moves toward restoring law and order in the chaos-ridden Palestinian territories.
But in a sign of ongoing lawlessness, an unknown group said it had kidnapped three leaders of the Islamic group Hamas in three West Bank towns. In a leaflet, the al-Farouk bin al-Khatab Brigades accused Hamas of putting itself above the law.
Palestinian security forces have been severely weakened by nearly five years of fighting with Israel, corruption and internal rivalries, leaving them virtually powerless to stop militants and armed gangs in the Palestinian areas.
But since Israel”s withdrawal last month from the Gaza Strip, where lawlessness is most severe, Palestinians have increasingly demanded a restoration of order.
Threatened by the instability, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has ordered his forces to rein in criminals and enforce a ban on public displays of weapons, leading to fierce gunbattles with Hamas militants. In the toughest fighting, three Palestinians, including a policeman, were killed in one battle this week.
More than 200 policemen participated in Friday”s arrest raid in Yatta, searching for drug and arms dealers and other wanted criminals, said Ahmed Rabai, the Hebron-area police chief. Village residents said they could not recall such a heavy crackdown by Palestinian police.
Police raided the village before dawn, surrounded homes and called on suspects to surrender. Homes were searched and illegal weapons were confiscated.
"This campaign was ordered by political leaders to enforce law and order and to bring justice to normal Palestinians and make the Palestinian people feel safe," Rabai said. "This campaign will continue not only in Yatta town, but also in other villages and in the city of Hebron itself."
Israel and the United States have demanded that Abbas rein in militants. Abbas has been reluctant to take such a step, fearing civil war, and has tried to co-opt the groups. But the growing chaos may be forcing Abbas to act. In the latest unrest, three local Hamas leaders in the West Bank were taken from their homes at gunpoint late Thursday, though one of them, Riad Abdel Karim al-Raz, was freed early Friday. The other two men, Bassem Abeido of Hebron and Hassan Safi of Bethlehem, remained in custody. The Khatab Brigades claimed responsibility for the abductions.
"This is a response to Hamas” violations and disregard for law and order and their attacks on security institutions and Palestinian leaders. We warn Hamas and ask them to stop their policy and learn their lessons. This is our first response," the group said in a eaflet obtained by The Associated Press.
Hamas is in a power struggle with the ruling Fatah movement ahead of January parliamentary elections. But Fatah officials and militants with the Al Aqsa Martyrs” Brigades, a violent group linked to Fatah, denied involvement in the abductions.
Little is known about the Khatab Brigades, named after one of the first followers of the Prophet Mohammed.
Karim, the Hamas leader in Tulkarem, said after his release Friday that he had no idea who kidnapped him or what they wanted.
"People came and took me by force. They didn”t treat me well, and then they apologized and told he I would be taken home," he said. Karim, head of the engineering department at A-Najah University in Nablus, suffered a black eye and had his shirt torn by his captors.
The lawlessness is also of concern to Israel, Army Chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz said in an interview published Friday, because internal Palestinian fighting tends to "ricochet" to Israel.
"Anarchy puts the Palestinian Authority in grave danger," Halutz told the English-language daily, the Jerusalem Post. "The anarchy today is a consequence of the Palestinian Authority”s unpreparedness to tackle the problem when it was small. They are still doing too little, but I hope it isn”t too late."
The issue is expected to arise at a summit next week between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator, was scheduled to met with Dov Weisglass, Sharon”s top adviser, to prepare for the summit, expected next Tuesday.