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Palestinian police deploy to prevent clashes in Hebron


HEBRON, West Bank (AP) _ For the first time in weeks, Palestinian police patrolled downtown Hebron today to prevent clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian stone-throwers.

About 200 uniformed officers were deployed in alleys between Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled areas from which Palestinians had been hurling rocks and firebombs at Israeli troops nearly every day for the past two weeks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a mixed message today to the Palestinians, saying Israel would take ``very forceful measures″ if the riots continued, but was ready to return to peace talks if Palestinian police calmed the situation.

Netanyahu did not spell out how Israel might retaliate for continued violence, but hinted it might tighten the closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Under the closure, only Palestinians with special permits can enter Israel.

Netanyahu also said Israel would not meet Palestinian demands to stop building a Jewish neighborhood in a disputed area of Jerusalem and halt the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians have said they would not resume negotiations until the building ends.

Senior Palestinian and Israeli security officials met Sunday night to discuss the situation in Hebron. The Palestinians asked Israel to ease restrictions imposed in the city after the riots began, said Col. Gadi Shamni, the city’s Israeli army commander.

Last week, Israeli troops ordered Arab merchants in the downtown area to close their shops, sealed several alleys and set up a ring of checkpoints around the city.

Shamni said he agreed to let shopkeepers along two downtown streets reopen their businesses today. However, all shops in the area were open.

Palestinian police commanders said they were acting to prevent riots because of concern that Israel would seize some Palestinian-run areas from which stones and firebombs had been thrown.

``We must not give the Israeli side any excuse to retake Shalalah Street and other areas,″ said Tarek Zaid, the Palestinian police commander of Hebron.

Palestinian human rights groups, meanwhile, accused Israeli troops of trying to severely injure Palestinian protesters in Hebron, not just disperse them.

Of the Palestinians injured by rubber and live bullets this month, 93 were hit in the upper body, the groups said.

The army said it was preparing a response to be issued later.

Although Israeli troops have mostly used rubber-coated steel pellets, not live rounds, in quelling the riots, rubber bullets can be deadly if fired at close range or if they hit the head.

Several Palestinians have been seriously hurt, but no one has died since the latest riots began two weeks ago after a Jewish extremist distributed a leaflet depicting the Muslim prophet, Mohammed, as a pig.

In a related development, army spokesman Brig. Gen. Oded Ben-Ami today denied that soldiers had targeted three TV cameramen and a soundman who were injured Sunday by rubber bullets.

In a protest letter to the army, the Foreign Press Association said Sunday that the four journalists, who were covering a flag-burning protest, stood well to the side of the rioters.

APTV cameraman Imad Isseid was shot in the leg while filming the evacuation of his colleague, Reuters TV cameraman Mazen Dana, on a stretcher. Dana had been hit in the shoulder by a rubber bullet.

Ben-Ami said today that the four were hit because they were in the midst of protesters. Israel, he said, permits free press coverage in Hebron.

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