Palestinian policemen dispatched last week to an unruly West Bank district clashed Tuesday with Islamic militants there, wounding two of them during a crackdown that could influence peace talks with Israel.
It was the first such confrontation since 480 police reinforcements clad in black and khaki uniforms marched into the city of Jenin before thousands of cheering residents Saturday to launch "Operation Smile and Hope."
Jenin and outlying towns and villages, protected until then by a police force of 150, have been beset by criminal gangs. The area is also a base for Islamic Jihad, an armed group that poses a threat to Israel but not to the local authorities or population.
Israel, which controls much of the West Bank, permitted the police deployment as a test of the Palestinian Authority's ability to govern a would-be independent state. Israeli officials say their army will not withdraw from the West Bank until Palestinians show they can rein in groups that attack Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Tuesday's fighting in the town of Kabatiya, three miles south of Jenin, demonstrated that the police are willing to enter a stronghold of the militants and confront them, at least in self-defense.
Diyab Ali, commander of Palestinian forces in the West Bank, said police shot into a group of about 20 Islamic Jihad members who had approached a police station Tuesday trying to force the release of a detainee. Two militants were hit in the legs.
Islamic Jihad gave a different account on its website, saying its members came under fire while walking near the police station on their way to a meeting. The group has accused the Palestinian Authority of working, with U.S. assistance, in Israel's interest.
Hundreds of policemen had entered the town before dawn. In an early shootout, police said that criminals opened fire on one of their patrols and a 21-year-old university student suffered a head wound in the crossfire. He was listed in critical condition at a hospital.
The clash with Islamic Jihad followed.
Officials said 11 people have been arrested and several stolen cars seized in the crackdown since Saturday. Police have handed out leaflets to residents asking for help with identifying troublemakers. The reinforcements, who will stay for three months, are from three different police units. Some have received training in Jordan under a U.S.-funded program.
A similar deployment in the West Bank city of Nablus in September led to a sharp reduction in killings and armed robberies. But to the chagrin of U.S. and Palestinian officials, it failed to halt the Israeli army's almost-nightly raids there; Israeli officials say the police in Nablus have been less aggressive in pursuing militants who plot attacks against Israelis.
The Palestinian police operations have also been undercut by Israeli travel restrictions in the West Bank, Israel's blockage of promised supplies of body armor and helmets, and a shortage of prison space and barracks.
Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator, said the ongoing raids in Nablus have undermined Palestinian public support for the U.S.-backed peace talks, which started in November. But Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said last week that "ultimate security responsibility" there and throughout the West Bank "will remain in Israel's hands."
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah in the West Bank contributed to this report.