JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank – The Palestinian government has detained some 200 people in recent weeks, including security officers, in the biggest crackdown on illegal weapons in the West Bank in five years, a spokesman said Monday.
The campaign is unusual because it targets include alleged vigilante gunmen linked to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement. Previously, security forces went mainly after armed supporters of rival groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Of some 200 people detained since May, nearly half have been released after surrendering their weapons, while the others remain in custody, said police spokesman Adnan Damiri. In all, about 100 guns have been seized, he said.
The weapons roundup was sparked by a shooting attack in May on the house of the governor of the Jenin district, Kadoura Mousa, who later died of a heart attack. Damiri said suspects in that shooting are among those in detention.
Others are being held on suspicion of illegal weapons dealing, extortion and attacks on security officers, he said.
The operation focuses on the Jenin district, the largest contiguous area under Palestinian self-rule. Israel retains overall control of the West Bank, a territory it captured in 1967, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Palestinians have limited autonomy in 38 percent of the West Bank.
The performance of Abbas' security forces, key to buttressing Palestinian claims for independence, has won Israeli praise in recent years. At the same time, Palestinian officials complain that Israeli restrictions on the movement of the Palestinian security forces and frequent Israeli army incursions into self-rule areas hamper their efforts.
Jenin saw some of the worst Israeli-Palestinian violence during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago. At the time, gunmen fighting Israel emerged as local heroes, but also acted with impunity at home, terrorizing other members of the community, residents say.
In recent years, the Palestinian Authority has gradually taken control in Jenin and other parts of the West Bank.
Several high-profile shootings in Jenin in the past 15 months signaled that the campaign was far from complete.
In a brazen daytime attack in April 2011, a masked gunman shot and killed Israeli-Arab actor Juliano Mer Khamis, who ran a local community theater, after stopping his car in the Jenin refugee camp. The killer remains at large.
That was followed by the attack on the governor's house in May.
On Sunday, assailants fired at Palestinian lawmaker Shami al-Shami of Fatah, wounding him in the leg as he approached his home. Damiri said the motive remains unclear and that there are no suspects yet in Sunday's shooting.
Al-Shami said in an interview Sunday that he opposes taking weapons away from Fatah loyalists, arguing that the movement needs them for a possible future confrontation with Hamas and other rivals. The Islamic militant Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007, leaving Abbas with only parts of the West Bank.
In response to the Gaza takeover, Abbas cracked down on Islamic militants in the West Bank, arresting armed supporters and shutting down Hamas-linked institutions. Damiri said the current campaign is the biggest since 2007.
In another development, the Hamas government in Gaza has suspended efforts to update the registration of Gaza voters as a precursor to planned presidential and parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories.
The elections are linked to stalled efforts by Abbas and Hamas to implement a reconciliation agreement. Under the deal, Abbas would lead an interim unity government ahead of elections, while each side is supposed to stop arresting the other group's activists.
A Hamas official, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the work by the Central Election Commission is being suspended because of what he said is harassment of Hamas supporters in the West Bank. Hamas officials said Abbas' security forces stepped up detentions of the movement's supporters in June.
Associated Press writers Dalia Nammari in Ramallah and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed reporting.