Hundreds of armed Palestinian police deployed across the northern Gaza Strip on Friday to prevent rocket fire on Israeli communities, raising hopes that the two sides have found a way to end more than four years of bloody conflict and resume peace talks.
The deployment, with officers wearing red berets patrolling in shiny new pickup trucks, came after Israel and the Palestinians renewed security coordination earlier this week. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is also negotiating with armed groups to win their commitment to a cease-fire, and his associates said he is making progress.
Eventually, about 4,000 members of the Palestinian security forces are to take up positions in the northern third of Gaza — a first since fighting erupted in 2000 and Israeli troops began targeting all armed Palestinians, including those in uniform, on suspicion of involvement in the violence.
Abbas said in a statement that the first stage of deployment, the posting of troops from Gaza City to the north of the strip, was completed Friday. The second stage, deploying officers from Gaza City to the south, is to be completed within two days, the statement said.
However, the situation remains volatile.
The militant groups have not yet committed to a cease-fire. "I don't know how soon we shall have results," Abbas told reporters Friday. Israel's deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim, said Friday that Israel would respond with "great force" to renewed Palestinian rocket fire.
In Israel, a 17-year-old girl from the town of Sderot near Gaza on Friday died of injuries she sustained in a Palestinian rocket attack last week. Militants have not fired rockets since Wednesday.
In Friday's troop deployment, officers fanned out across northern Gaza. Near the Erez crossing with Israel, 10 policemen in green uniforms took up a post. The officers, armed with assault rifles, checked vehicles heading to nearby Israeli positions.
In addition, a special unit will be stationed at the Karni crossing, in northern Gaza.
From the northern town of Beit Lahiya, a frequent rocket launching area, about five dozen members of Palestinian military intelligence set out on patrol in new pickup trucks. "We've received orders to deploy all along the northern border areas to take complete control," said the group's commander, Ismail Dahdouh.
The prospect of Palestinian police taking action to rein in militants quelled calls in Israel for immediate military action to stop the rocket fire. Israel has warned it would launch a major offensive in Gaza if rocket fire resumes.
The militants have said they are ready to halt attacks on Israel, provided Israel stops military operations.
Defense sources told the Jerusalem Post that Israel rejected other requests, such as a halt to targeted assassinations and raids.
The head of the Palestinian police force in Gaza, Maj.-Gen. Sa'eb el-Ajez, told the Post his men will not be involved in the arrest of terrorists, nor are they ordered to open fire on those launching rockets.
"We understand that we will not be 100 percent successful in stopping them," he said, "but at least we are out there."
Ajez said his men "are used to fighting criminals and there is no consensus among the men" whether or not the rocket launchers are criminals. "The vote for [Mahmoud Abbas] is a mandate that the rockets are bad, but the people have not really decided yet.
A period of calm could lead to peace negotiations, starting with coordination of Israel's planned pullout from Gaza in the summer. But renewed violence would likely trigger an Israeli military offensive, burying peace prospects and undermining Abbas' attempt to establish a regime based on calm after the death of longtime leader Yasser Arafat.
"We believe in peace, and we believe in negotiations, and we want to reach peace through negotiations," Abbas said Thursday.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said the agreement over deploying Palestinian police along the Gaza border could be the "beginning of the process of trying to coordinate so that Palestinian Authority can redeploy its forces in all Palestinian areas, at least in Gaza, and then in the West Bank."
That would restore the situation that preceded the outbreak of violence in September 2000, which led to Israel's sending troops into the West Bank and Gaza, retaking areas handed over to the Palestinians under interim peace deals.
Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon praised the Palestinian leadership. "Today we are witness to the beginning of positive developments on the Palestinian side ... which are an expression of the understanding that terrorism does not pay," he said.
In further signs of easing tensions, the army on Friday opened the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border, the Palestinians' only link to the Arab world, to incoming traffic. The crossing has been closed since a Dec. 12 attack on the Israeli military post there killed five soldiers.
Despite the diplomatic progress, violent incidents continued.
Israeli troops shot and killed a 13-year-old boy who fired a homemade rifle at them near the West Bank village of Tubas, Palestinian witnesses said. The army said a large crowd of people gathered, and they were beginning to riot when troops spotted what appeared to be a gunman in the crowd and opened fire.
Also, troops shot and killed a 13-year-old boy in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza, hospital officials said. The military said soldiers fired at two suspicious Palestinians crawling in a no-go zone.