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Abbas Orders Security Service Reforms

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) on Thursday ordered reforms of his security services, a key Israeli and U.S. condition for renewing peace negotiations. Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian militant in the West Bank (search).

In the Gaza Strip (search), Jewish settler leaders said they had appointed lawyers to negotiate details of their evacuation, the strongest sign yet that they were coming to terms with Israel's planned summer pullout from the Palestinian territory.

Abbas ordered his security services to come under the authority of three main institutions, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa said in a report confirmed by a senior Palestinian official.

The United States and Israel have long demanded the unification of Palestinian security services as a condition for renewing peace talks. More than a dozen security organizations have long operated as independent fiefdoms, contributing to rising lawlessness in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information, said Abbas ordered all his security services placed under the authority of the National Security Forces, the Interior Ministry, and the General Intelligence Agency.

The order expands the responsibilities of Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, who was named by Abbas as his security chief earlier this year. Yousef continues to oversee his ministry as well as the National Security forces, which include elite commando units and military intelligence.

Yousef will be responsible for all contacts between Palestinian security agencies and foreign bodies, such as Israel and the United States. This would cut off long-standing ties between Israel and veteran strongmen Mohammed Dahlan and Jabril Rajoub, the official said.

Abbas has already instructed all security organizations to provide him with lists of all their members, the official said.

Yasser Arafat ordered a similar security unification before his death last year, but it was never implemented because of objections of individual security organization heads.

In the latest strain in the cease-fire that was declared in early February, Israel troops shot and killed a Palestinian militant in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank on Thursday.

The exact circumstances of the shooting in were in dispute. The army said its soldiers shot the man after coming under fire. One soldier was hit in a bulletproof vest, the army said. But Balata residents said the forces entered the area and opened fire without provocation. The man lay motionless on the ground after he was shot and was taken away by Israeli troops, they said.

Palestinians identified the dead man as a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a violent group linked to Abbas' Fatah (search) faction. Brigades leaders were meeting Thursday to discuss whether to continue honoring the cease-fire.

In the past week, troops killed three Palestinian youths in the Gaza Strip. Circumstances of that shooting were also disputed.

Israel wants the cease-fire to remain in effect at least through the end of the summer, when it plans to pull out of the Gaza Strip. Israel, already concerned about possible violence by uprooted settlers, wants to avoid clashes with Palestinians during the pullout.

After months of vocal opposition to the withdrawal, there were new signs that Jewish settlers' ideological battle is weakening.

Settler leaders decided Wednesday to authorize a team of 100 lawyers and assessors to negotiate with the government about moving the settlers as a group to the coastal area of Nitzanim in southern Israel.

Last week, representatives of the 8,500 Gaza settlers met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and floated the idea of moving together to Nitzanim, five miles north of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon.

Since Sharon announced his plan to withdraw from all the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements last year, settlers have vowed to resist the plan. But since Sharon won final parliamentary approval last month, the settlers have begun to show flexibility.

Eran Sternberg, a Gaza settler spokesman, said the settlers would continue a nonviolent struggle against the evacuation but lawyers are needed to protect their interests if the withdrawal takes place.

"They are an independent group of ... lawyers, who decided to fight for us so that we can continue our ideological struggle," Sternberg said.

Despite the latest signs of progress, many settlers still say they will oppose the pullout. Security officials have expressed concern the resistance could turn violent.

The evacuation is to be completed in a tight, four-week timetable.