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Palestinian Troops Headed to Bethlehem for Christmas

( [email protected] ) Nov 25, 2008 09:09 AM EST

RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants to deploy about 900 troops to Bethlehem to maintain order during Christmas celebrations and is asking Israel to let the reinforcements stay on after the holiday, officials said Monday.

Abbas is trying to strengthen his grip on the West Bank to reassure Israel and the international community that his forces can impose order and rein in militants. In recent months, Palestinian security forces have deployed in the West Bank cities of Nablus, Jenin and Hebron as part of the law-and-order campaign.

Bethlehem would become the next city on the list if the extra forces are allowed to remain, said Diab al-Ali, a senior Palestinian security commander. He said negotiations with Israel are continuing and that a decision is expected by the end of the week.

Israel retains overall security control and Israeli troops often carry out arrest raids despite the presence of Palestinian security forces.

Israeli officials confirmed the Christmas deployment. The Israeli army had no immediate comment on the request to allow the Palestinian troops to extend their presence.

Bethlehem, meanwhile, is expecting a good Christmas season, said Mayor Victor Batarseh. Information Minister Riad Malki said the number of tourists to the Palestinian areas has grown steadily since 2006, following a sharp decline in Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Malki said almost 1.2 million tourists have visited the West Bank this year, compared to 700,000 in all of 2007 and 400,000 in 2006. Hotel occupancy was 70 percent in 2008, he added.

The surge in tourism has created 12,000 new jobs in Bethlehem, biblical Jericho and the city of Ramallah, he said.

Abbas, meanwhile, is gearing up for a political showdown with his bitter rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, which seized control of Gaza by force in June 2007. Hamas contends that Abbas' term as president of the Palestinian Authority ends on Jan. 8, or four years after his election.

Abbas' aides say he has another year on the job, citing a constitutional amendment that was never ratified by parliament. On Sunday, PLO leaders meeting in Ramallah tried to give Abbas a boost by giving him the new title of president of the Palestinian state.

It's a title previously held by Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

Sunday's vote by the PLO Central Committee has little practical meaning since it does not give Abbas additional authority. In any case, Abbas has said he intends to stay on as Palestinian leader.

Also on Monday, Israel opened its border crossings with the Gaza Strip for the first time in weeks, allowing fuel and humanitarian supplies into the area.

Mahmoud Khazandar, head of the gas station owners' association, said Israel resumed pumping some diesel fuel to Gaza's only power plant. He said he did not know how much EU-funded fuel was being shipped. Fuel had last been shipped to the power plant Nov. 11, but the supply only kept it running for two days.

Besides allowing in the fuel, Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak also ordered the crossings to open to allow food and medicine into the territory, his office said. It was unclear how much aid was going into Gaza or when the deliveries would actually be made.

The tight closure was imposed earlier this month, as a way of pressuring Gaza militants to halt rocket fire on Israeli border towns. The rocket fire has largely subsided in recent days.

The international community has urged Israel to ease the blockade, citing growing hardship for Gaza's 1.4 million residents, including widespread blackouts and fuel shortages that have disrupted water pumping.

However, sporadic rocket fire continues and Israel says it will not reopen crossings until the attacks stop.

Even before the latest closure, Israel only allowed humanitarian supplies and a trickle of commercial goods into Gaza. Israel and Egypt have been enforcing a Gaza blockade since the Hamas takeover.

Additional reporting by Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City.

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