HEBRON, West Bank, Nov 4 (Reuters) - Jewish settlers say they are ready to fight U.S.-trained, Palestinian security forces who are being sent to the tense West Bank city of Hebron.
Fear of a showdown if the armed Palestinians move into the centre, where a hard core of sometimes violent settlers lives, makes the deployment the biggest test yet for a U.S. plan to build up the force, seen as vital in persuading Israel it can end its occupation without compromising its own security.
As another U.S.-sponsored peace process winds down without result amid changes of administration in Washington and Israel, and with Palestinians still smarting from a civil war in Gaza, all sides agree last month's initial despatch of the force to positions around Hebron was high risk.
"I'll shoot them first," Baruch Marzel, one of the most outspoken settler leaders, said when asked what would happen if President Mahmoud Abbas's best-armed men neared his home.
They are "terrorist police" in the words of some, who say they fear the Palestinians may turn their weapons on them.
The last time Abbas deployed the forces, he chose a city where his Fatah faction dominated and where his men were more likely to clash with car thieves than Hamas militants.
But unlike Jenin, where those forces met scant resistance in May, the larger city of Hebron, where they arrived Oct. 25, looks like enemy territory that is home not only to settlers but also a bastion of the rival Islamist movement Hamas.
"The closer they get, the more dangerous it is. There's no doubt about it," said David Wilder, a Hebron settler spokesman.
To minimise chances of a violent showdown with settlers, Abbas agreed to keep his men at a "safe" distance from the city centre, a diplomat said. But as the campaign moves closer in, Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, said: "It certainly could become a tinderbox".
Such deployments, which started in Nablus a year ago, have received some hard-won praise from Israeli defence officials. But Israel remains sceptical Abbas has the political clout and military means to root out their shared nemesis, Hamas.
Hamas in turn scorns Abbas's force as "protecting settlers".
Samih al-Saifi, Palestinian security chief for Hebron area, said his campaign would target "illegal armed groups" -- making clear his top targets were Palestinian militants and criminals, leaving violent settlers to be dealt with by Israel.
Some 650 Jews live in fortified enclaves inside a hectic city that is home to 180,000 Palestinians. While Israel supports half a million settlers in the West Bank, often confrontational tactics from those in Hebron's Old City can exasperate even the Israeli troops deployed to protect them from their neighbours.
Settlers say they are reviving a Jewish presence that was ended by violence in the city in 1929. Tensions often focus on the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine to Abraham revered by both Muslims and Jews. A Jew shot dead 29 Muslims there in 1994.
Israeli and Palestinian officials and their Western advisers see a showdown with settlers as a worst-case scenario. Hence, Israel has so far limited the deployment to the outlying hills.
But the force, equipped with new assault rifles, trucks and other equipment, plans to move closer into the city "stage by stage" in coordination with Israel, a Western diplomat said.
"After finishing with the peripheral villages, we will launch a wide security drive in the city of Hebron," said the local Palestinian police chief, Ramadan Awad. But he stressed: "We have no interest in friction or clashes with settlers."
Yet many of the Jewish settlers see a confrontation as inevitable if Israel gives the new forces a green light to patrol the city itself. "They want to kill the Jews," said Tzipi Schlissel, a mother of 11. "I guess I'll have to fight."
Settler spokesman Noam Arnon did not rule out cooperation if Abbas's men proved serious about confronting the common enemy Hamas, but until then, he said, "there should be a distance".
Abbas aide Saeb Erekat called on Israel to stop protecting the Hebron settlers, citing a "pattern of terrorising and sabotaging" Palestinian efforts to improve law and order.
The Hebron deployment comes at a time of new violence in the West Bank by settlers against both Palestinians and Israeli soldiers who get in their way. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israel's top general called the trend "very grave".
The chairman of Israel's left-wing Meretz party, Chaim Oron, said Hebron settlers were behaving like "criminals".
The restart of talks on Palestinian statehood last year and the U.S.-funded training of Abbas's forces, stoking settler fears of an Israeli withdrawal, may help explain the flare-up.
Wilder dismissed U.S. training as a farce, described Abbas as weak and forecast Hamas would also seize the West Bank.
Israel limits the operations of less heavily-armed Palestinian police who already operate in Hebron, often ordering them off the streets and barring them from pursuing criminals into those parts of the city under full Israeli control.
Colin Smith, who runs EU training for the police, says Hebron requires cares. "One wants to make progress, but you don't want to go three steps forward and then five steps back by having a confrontation. This is high risk and everyone is aware of it."
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
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