Palestinian militants beat and briefly held the governor of a West Bank town Saturday, raising tensions with Palestinian authorities under heavy Israeli pressure to crack down on armed groups.
Shortly after the governor's release, the office of Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan issued a statement saying the government had started "a large-scale campaign" to bring law and order to the Gaza Strip.
The statement gave no specifics on what had been done or what was planned, but the militant Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or DFLP, said Palestinian police Saturday had arrested two of its members in Gaza.
The attack on Jenin Governor Haider Irsheid by the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade came ahead of an expected meeting yesterday of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to work on a US-backed peace plan, which is stalled despite a three-week truce declared by militant groups.
Al Aqsa's leader in Jenin, Zakariye Zubeydi, demanded that the Palestinian Authority put Irsheid on trial for collaborating with Israel and being involved in a failed attempt to kill an Al Aqsa member on Friday.
But the militants freed Irsheid about five hours later, after a call from an unidentified official at Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's office. Al Aqsa is loosely affiliated with Arafat's Fatah movement.
"For me, Arafat's order is not up for negotiation, so I released him immediately," Zubeydi said, adding that he would leave the responsibility for judging Irsheid to Arafat.
The attack on Irsheid follows months of tensions between militants and the governor, who townspeople say has worked well with Israeli authorities.
Eyewitnesses said gunmen pulled Irsheid, 50, from his van and beat him with their fists and gun butts before bundling him into another vehicle and driving off toward the city's refugee camp. He suffered bruises on his face and neck, witnesses said.
There is practically no Palestinian police presence in Jenin or the adjacent refugee camp, a militant stronghold. Israel has effectively controlled Jenin and most other West Bank towns for over a year, but does not maintain a constant presence there, keeping troops just outside the town.
The release illustrated the authority Arafat still wields despite a power-sharing agreement with Abbas. The two have wrangled over how to proceed in negotiations with Israel, and Arafat has worked to limit Abbas' influence.
Israel refuses to deal with Arafat, blaming him for the violence of the past three years, but has worked openly with Abbas. After the expected meeting with Sharon, Abbas travels to Washington for a meeting with US President George W. Bush on July 25. Sharon meets Bush on July 29.
In Rome, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath told reporters that Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi would go to the Middle East soon for talks with Arafat and Abbas. Berlusconi's office said they had no immediate information on the visit. In June, Berlusconi met in Israel with Sharon and President Moshe Katsav, but avoided Arafat.
The Jenin kidnapping comes as Israel is demanding Palestinian authorities disarm militant groups responsible for suicide bombings and shootings that have killed hundreds of Israelis in 33 months of violence. Palestinians fear that could spark civil war and have said they would try to convince the militants to disarm.