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Palestinian police hit lack of firepower

Angry legislators demand ouster of security chief

GAZA CITY -- Dozens of disgruntled Palestinian police officers stormed the parliament building yesterday, complaining that they do not have enough firepower to confront Hamas, and legislators upset over the growing chaos demanded that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas reshuffle the Cabinet and fire his security chief.

The protest and parliament's rebuke of Abbas came a day after the worst fighting between Hamas and police in nearly a decade. Three people were killed, including the deputy police chief in the Shati refugee camp near Gaza City, who was shot in the head after he and his men ran out of bullets during a Hamas assault on their station.

The violence underscored the difficulties Abbas and his ill-equipped security forces face in trying to control unruly Gaza. Since Israel's pullout last month, the Islamic militant group Hamas has become increasingly brazen in challenging Abbas.

Israel and the United States demand that Abbas disarm Hamas, which opposes the existence of Israel and has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks. Instead, Abbas has settled for a ban on displaying weapons in public and has tried to coax gunmen off the streets with promises of jobs and political participation.

After the most recent onslaught on his security forces, Abbas said yesterday he would stand firm.

''We will not remain silent in the face of this," he said at his Gaza City office. ''This mob behavior, this chaos must end."

The Palestinian Authority, he said, is ''ready to use all means to prevent the public display of arms."

However, Palestinian security officials say police are no match for the armed groups.

In Gaza, only about half of the 18,000 members of the security forces carry guns, with a limited number of bullets at their disposal, the officials say. Hamas in Gaza commands at least 5,000 gunmen, according to some estimates, and has equipped them not only with assault rifles but also with antitank missiles and grenades.

After the Hamas attack on the Shati police station, about 40 officers posted there briefly stormed the parliament building in Gaza City, firing in the air in protest. The officers barged into the entrance hall, but legislators locked the door to keep out the intruders.

''Our commander died in front of us, and we were running out of bullets," said one officer, a lieutenant, on the steps of the parliament building.

''The officials are sitting inside air-conditioned offices and giving us orders without asking us how we can implement them," said the lieutenant, who did not give his name because he is not permitted to speak to reporters.

In all, three people were killed and 50 wounded in Sunday's clashes, which raged for about six hours across Shati and several neighborhoods of Gaza City before Egyptian mediators stepped in. In Shati, Hamas gunmen fired on the police station from the roof of an adjacent mosque, witnesses said. They also knocked out an electricity transformer with rocket-propelled grenades, plunging large areas of Gaza City into darkness for several hours.

During the police protest, the Palestinian parliament was holding an emergency session on the growing lawlessness. The main proceedings were held in the West Bank city of Ramallah, with Gaza legislators participating by video because of an Israeli security closure of the strip.

In a 43-5 vote, legislators asked Abbas to present a new Cabinet within two weeks, and many demanded the ouster of Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, who oversees the security forces.

Lawmaker Abdel Aziz Shaheen said Yousef, a veteran security chief, must be held responsible.

''We are talking about the future of this nation, and the future cannot be guaranteed if we fail to guarantee security," he said.

Abbas has promised repeatedly to reform his security services, but progress has been slow. Some officers are engaged in corruption and others are members of armed groups, particularly the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which has ties to Abbas' ruling Fatah movement.

The demand for a Cabinet reshuffle came less than four months before Palestinian parliamentary elections, and the new government would only be in power until then. The vote was seen, in part, as an attempt by legislators to improve their standing with voters frustrated by the chaos in the streets.

Israeli officials said they were encouraged by the Palestinian Authority's show of force but added that it was too early to judge whether this is the beginning of a crackdown on Hamas.

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