JERUSALEM — The Palestinians are recruiting thousands of police in the Gaza Strip to prevent attacks on Jewish settlers and soldiers during Israel’s planned pullout from the area this summer, a security official said Monday, a significant step toward coordination after months of deadlock and years of bloody conflict.
The new signs of cooperation, including a meeting of technical experts late Monday, came despite a confrontation at a disputed holy site in Jerusalem in which Israeli police hurled stun grenades to disperse hundreds of Palestinian stone-throwers.
The violence erupted on “Jerusalem Day,” when Israel marks the anniversary of its capture of east Jerusalem — home to the city’s holy sites and Arab population — in the 1967 Mideast war.
When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his Gaza withdrawal plan last year, he envisioned the pullout as a unilateral act meant to boost Israel’s security after several years of fighting. The pullout also includes uprooting four isolated settlements in the West Bank.
Slow progress on coordination
Since the election of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian leader following the death of Yasser Arafat in November, Israel has expressed a willingness to coordinate the withdrawal. Those efforts, however, have yielded little progress.
Some 1.3 million Palestinians live in Gaza, an impoverished, densely populated area where the militant group Hamas is popular. Israel wants assurances that the 8,500 settlers slated for evacuation, and the soldiers being sent to carry out the mission, won’t be harmed.
Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said the Palestinians are recruiting 5,600 police officers in Gaza to ensure security during the withdrawal. He said they want to prevent damage to abandoned properties and ensure that Israelis are not attacked.
“The plan includes protecting any installations or houses or facilities that Israel leaves, and to prevent any action from the Palestinian factions,” he said.
The Palestinian forces are ready to coordinate their actions with Israel or act on their own, he said, adding that he does not expect any trouble from militant groups, which have largely been honoring a four-month cease-fire with Israel.
‘We should not impede them’
“We want to make the Israeli withdrawal smooth and fast,” he said. “If they are leaving, we should not impede them.”
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz promised harsh retaliation if any attacks are staged during the pullout. Speaking to a parliamentary committee, Mofaz said he has asked the Palestinians to deploy a large force during the monthlong operation to ensure quiet, meeting participants said.
“It has been decided that the disengagement will not take place under fire. We will do everything possible to coordinate the disengagement with the Palestinians,” Mofaz said after the closed meeting.
Palestinian officials said technical teams from the two sides were meeting Monday evening to discuss coordination.
Late Monday, Israeli negotiators turned over information about the 21 Gaza settlements slated for evacuation. Israel’s army radio said the documents included details about the local infrastructure.
Hopes for ‘soft landing’
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the handover was a step in the right direction, but said the information was incomplete. The Palestinians have said information about the electric lines, water supply and other resources is essential to planning for the post-Israel era.
“It is important that they hand us everything to make the Gaza disengagement a success and make the ‘soft landing’ we all wish to see,” he said.
In addition to the threat of Palestinian attacks, Israel is bracing for the possibility of violence by settlers. Many Gaza settlers oppose the pullout, and some extremists have pledged stiff resistance.
Mofaz said during his parliamentary testimony that the military will forcibly disarm settlers who don’t turn in weapons voluntarily. Mofaz also said he would urge settlers to evacuate children before the withdrawal to spare them traumatic sights.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, some 3,000 police were deployed to prevent friction on Jerusalem Day, which Israelis mark with marches and speeches. With tensions running high, a confrontation erupted Monday morning as several Jewish visitors toured the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, accompanied by police.
Jordan denounced the confrontation at the compound and urged the international community to help end “violations” against the sanctity of the Muslim holy shrine.
Police actions and the visit of Jewish visitors “represent a flagrant and an unacceptable defiance,” Religious Affairs Minister Abdul-Salam al-Abadi said Monday.
The site is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, home to the biblical Jewish Temples. The competing claims to the hilltop compound make it one of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said hundreds of Palestinians threw stones at the visitors and their police guards. Additional forces stormed the walled compound, throwing stun grenades to disperse the crowd, Ben-Ruby said.
A Palestinian man who tried to attack a Jewish visitor was arrested, he said. Two Jewish visitors were slightly hurt by stones.
Abbas said the Jews should not have been allowed into the mosque compound. “The Israeli government and the international community must stop these unjustified and dangerous violations,” he said.
Adnan Husseini, director of the Islamic Trust, which runs the mosque compound, said he had urged police to bar Jewish visitors from the site because of the tensions over Jerusalem Day.
In 2000, a demonstrative visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the shrine triggered bloody protests that escalated into more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
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