A group of Palestinian police reoccupied an abandoned police post adjacent to the Erez border crossing yesterday, the first of thousands due to deploy in northern Gaza to prevent rocket fire on Israeli targets.
About 10 green-uniformed men armed with assault rifles, took up position at the sandbagged post and started stopping and searching Palestinian vehicles heading for the nearby Israeli positions. The post has been empty for much of the more than four years of Palestinian-Israeli fighting and in the past, even when it was manned, the policemen on duty did not carry automatic weapons.
A senior Palestinian security official said orders had been issued to begin deploying 3,000 men along the northern stretch of Gaza bordering Israel, an area from which rockets have been launched at the Israeli town of Sderot, and other targets.
Yesterday's Palestinian deployment was the first result of renewed security cooperation that has led to hopes the two sides could end more than four years of bloody conflict and resume peace talks.
However, the situation remains volatile. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not yet sealed his proposed cease-fire deal with armed groups, and Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim warned yesterday that Israeli troops would retaliate "with great force" in the event of renewed Palestinian rocket attacks.
Abbas met with his security chiefs on Thursday to work out details of the plan to post police in the border area of northern Gaza, and Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz approved the deployment.
Major General Moussa Arafat, a Palestinian security chief, said that about 1,000 police would be posted in northern Gaza.
"In the first stage, it will be in the north, and then we will move into the south," he said.
The prospect of Palestinian police taking action to rein in militants quelled calls in Israel for immediate military action to stop the rocket fire.
Militants have not fired home-made Qassam rockets since Thursday, and Palestinian officials involved in truce talks with the armed groups have suggested the two sides are close to a deal.
The militants have said they are ready to halt attacks on Israel, provided Israel stops military operations.
Boim indicated yesterday that Israel would not make such a promise now, but that the issue could be discussed in future talks between Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Asked whether Israel would halt military strikes, Boim told Israel Radio: "I assume that further down the line, there will be a meeting, and we'll see exactly what Abu Mazen wants."
A period of calm could lead to peace negotiations, starting with coordination of Israel's planned pullout from Gaza in the summer. But renewed violence would likely trigger an Israeli military offensive, already approved by Israeli leaders, burying peace prospects and undermining Abbas' attempt to establish a regime based on calm after the death of longtime leader Yasser Arafat, associated by many with violent resistance.
Greeting Gaza worshippers after Thursday morning prayers for the Feast of the Sacrifice holiday, Abbas said, "We believe in peace, and we believe in negotiations, and we want to reach peace through negotiations."
Israeli military chief Moshe Yaalon praised the Palestinian leadership.
"Today we are witness to the beginning of positive developments on the Palestinian side," he said.