JENIN, West Bank – Gunbattles erupted Friday as Palestinian security forces swept through the West Bank (search) town of Jenin (search), hunting for militants who killed an officer in an attack on a police station the day before.
Dozens of police in jeeps cordoned off a northern part of the town, exchanging shots with gunmen. There were no reports of injuries. Throughout the day, eight gunmen were arrested, police said. However, the leader of the group, identified as Said Amin, remained at large, they said.
The violence in Jenin began after nightfall Thursday when hospital. Family members said they would not bury him until the gunmen were apprehended.
Security officials said the militant attack was sparked when one of the gunmen had been arrested earlier for firing at Shati, a member of the ruling Fatah party (search). It was not clear why the gunmen targeted Shati.
Zakariye Zubeydi (search), local leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a violent group affiliated with Fatah, said his movement was not involved. Later Friday, Zubeydi went to the town hall to offer his assistance in capturing the rest of the gunmen.
Zubeydi is the best-known of the local gang leaders who have taken control of West Bank streets and refugee camps during four years of Palestinian-Israeli violence. In March, Zubeydi stared down Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, who had ordered his arrest during a visit to Jenin but quickly relented.
The security forces' weakness and the militant groups' strength have frustrated many Palestinians, who complain their government isn't doing enough to restore order.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) has been trying to wrest control from the gangs by co-opting them into the security forces, finessing a demand by the U.S. and Israel to disarm the militants.
On Thursday, Palestinian officials reached a tentative deal to absorb 700 gunmen into the security services in Nablus, a center of militant activity and control.
Abbas' representatives have been working out similar deals in Tulkarem and Jericho, the two towns Israel has returned to Palestinian control under the terms of a February truce, which calls for the handover of five towns. Israel has stopped the process, insisting the gunmen be disarmed, not co-opted.
Abbas has said his goal is "one authority, one weapon," meaning only official security forces would be armed. That would imply disarming militant groups like Hamas (search), but Palestinian officials have conceded that despite the deal reached in Nablus large-scale collection of weapons is not on the horizon.
Abbas has been avoiding a confrontation, fearing civil war.
At a summit meeting this week with Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) offered to transfer control of two more towns.
On Thursday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz instructed the military to prepare for the handover of Bethlehem next week and Qalqiliya the week after, the Defense Ministry said. That would leave Ramallah — where Abbas has his headquarters — as the last of the five towns still under Israeli control. Militant centers like Nablus, Jenin and Hebron are not on the list.
Also Friday, the army said two Israelis were slightly wounded in separate incidents: One was shot when Palestinian gunmen fired at his car near the West Bank town of Tulkarem; the other was hit by shrapnel when militants in the Gaza Strip fired a mortar at the settlement of Netzarim.
A recent spike in violence has cast doubt on whether the February truce will last.