YATTA, West Bank – Palestinian police went door-to-door early Friday in this West Bank town and arrested 30 suspected criminals in a crackdown aimed at restoring law and order in the chaotic territories, the local police chief said.
But in a sign of ongoing lawlessness, a previously unknown group said it had kidnapped three leaders of the Islamic group Hamas (search) in three West Bank towns. The al-Farouk bin al-Khatab Brigades (search) 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 areas they control.
But since Israel's withdrawal last month from the Gaza Strip (search), where the lawlessness is most extreme, Palestinians have increasingly demanded a restoration of order.
Threatened by the instability, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) has ordered his forces to rein in criminals and enforce a ban on public displays of weapons. This has led to fierce gunbattles with Hamas militants. In the toughest battle, three Palestinians, including a policeman, were killed this week.
More than 200 policemen participated in Friday's raid in Yatta, searching for drug and arms dealers and other wanted criminals, said Ahmed Rabai, the Hebron-area police chief. Villagers said they could not recall such a heavy crackdown by Palestinian police.
Police raided the village before dawn, surrounded homes and demanded that suspects surrender. They searched homes and confiscated weapons.
"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 instead to co-opt the groups. But growing chaos may be forcing Abbas to act.
The issue is expected to arise at a summit next week between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search). Saeb Erekat (search), a top Palestinian negotiator, was scheduled to meet Dov Weisglass (search), Sharon's top adviser, to prepare for the summit, expected next Tuesday.
In the latest unrest, three local Hamas leaders in the West Bank were taken from their homes at gunpoint late Thursday. 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," the group said in a leaflet obtained by The Associated Press. "We warn Hamas and ask them to stop their policy and learn their lessons. This is our first response."
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 (search), 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.