EREZ CHECKPOINT, Gaza Strip – Around 3,000 armed Palestinian police deployed across the northern Gaza Strip (search) on Friday to prevent rocket fire on Israeli communities, raising hopes the two sides have found a way to end more than four years of bloody conflict and resume peace talks.
The deployment, with officers patrolling in shiny new pickup trucks, came after Israel and the Palestinians renewed security coordination earlier this week. In parallel, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) is negotiating with armed groups to win their commitment to a cease-fire, and his associates said he is making progress.
The Islamic militant group Hamas indicated it is suspending rocket attacks while negotiations continue. "One can't be negotiating and firing rockets at the same time. It just doesn't work," Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri (search) told The Associated Press. He also said the talks are moving in a "positive direction."
Some 3,000 members of the Palestinian security forces took up positions in northern Gaza on Friday, security officials said. Additional forces were to deploy in the southern half of the strip by Sunday.
After the outbreak of fighting in 2000, Palestinian police had increasingly stayed off the streets, for fear of being targeted by Israeli troops. Israel has said many members of the Palestinian security forces were involved in the fighting, and has repeatedly hit police positions.
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 Israel would respond with "great force" to renewed Palestinian rocket fire.
In Israel, a 17-year-old girl from the town of Sderot (search) near Gaza died Friday of injuries she sustained in a Palestinian rocket attack last week. Militants have not fired rockets since Wednesday.
In the troop deployment, officers fanned out across northern Gaza. Near the Erez crossing with Israel, 10 policemen in green uniforms and carrying assault rifles checked vehicles heading to nearby Israeli positions.
From the northern town of Beit Lahiya, a frequent rocket-launching area, about five dozen members of Palestinian military intelligence, wearing red berets, 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.
In Gaza City, the Palestinians' National Security Council met Friday to review the deployment.
"We are extending maximum effort to carry out our obligation to stop violence against Israelis everywhere," said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. "We urge the Israeli side to return to the negotiating table so we can have a declaration of a mutual cessation of violence."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sent messages to Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which began Thursday. Sharon wrote that he hopes that the entire region will be blessed by peace and prosperity, Erekat said. Abbas responded that the two sides should work together to reach a peace agreement.
Ordinary Palestinians, who have suffered much hardship because of the fighting, welcomed the police presence in the streets.
"This is the first step toward security and order, something that has been missing, especially in the past year," said Mohammed Al-Ashi, 22, a mobile phone salesman in Gaza City. Al-Ashi said rocket fire was harming the Palestinians' interests because it invites Israeli retaliation.
The militants have said they are ready to halt attacks on Israel, provided Israel stops military operations.
Boim, the deputy defense minister, indicated Friday that Israel would not make such a promise now, but that the issue could be discussed in future talks between Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, and Sharon.
Asked whether Israel would halt military strikes, Boim told Israel Radio: "I assume that further down the line, there will be a meeting, and we'll see exactly what Abu Mazen wants."
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 offensive, bury peace prospects and undermine Abbas' attempt to establish a regime based on calm after the death of longtime leader Yasser Arafat.
In a further sign of easing tensions, the army 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.