Palestinians, fed up with years of corruption by security officials, hailed Monday's demolition as an important sign that nobody is above the law.

"The Palestinian Authority policy is clear. No one is above the law, and we will work until we put an end to the lawlessness in the Palestinian areas," Tawfik Abu Khoussa, spokesman for Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, said.

One bulldozer guarded by seven jeeps and 30 Palestinian officers entered the Sudaniya area on the Mediterranean sea coast of northern Gaza on Monday morning to crush the three homes, being built by a major, a lieutenant-colonel and a colonel on public land they had illegally seized.

The operation encountered no resistance.

Illegal constructions

Construction on the two-storey concrete houses, which had a clear view of the ocean, was almost finished. One house was surrounded by a small flower garden.

Palestinian security services are
said to be riddled with corruption

Palestinian officials said the demolitions - which came after President Mahmoud Abbas ordered the destruction of hundreds of illegal shops, cafes and kiosks near the beach in Gaza City in January - signalled a wider crackdown on corruption by security officials.

"The demolition of the three houses today is the beginning, and any other abuse is going to be resolved the same way," Abu Khoussa said.

Local Palestinians welcomed the demolitions.

"When my family told me this morning over the phone that the police and bulldozers have come to knock down the house of the colonel, I told them they were dreaming. But now I see that the dream became a reality," Hasan Abd al-Khaliq, a local resident, said.

Tough Abbas

In recent weeks, Abbas has forced top security officials into retirement and promised to streamline and restructure the overlapping and competing security services.

The demolitions sent an important message to Palestinians that corruption will no longer be tolerated, Ghadeer Omari, a Palestinian human-rights activist, said.

"This is a good start. Many officers and many officials abused their authority in the past, and to start with them is going to encourage people to obey law and order," Omari said.

Saida shootout

Also on Monday, an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian fighter wanted in a Tel Aviv bombing were killed in an early morning shootout that capped a recent rise in violence that has tested a three-month-old truce between Israel and the Palestinians.

"This is a good start. Many officers and many officials abused their authority in the past, and to start with them is going to encourage people to obey law
and order"

Ghadeer Omari
human rights activist

Monday's incident began when troops raiding the West Bank village of Saida cornered two fighters, who began shooting, killing one soldier and lightly wounding another.

The soldiers returned fire, killing one of the fighters and wounding the other, the army said.

The Palestinian fighter was identified as Shafiq Abd al-Ghani, 34, from Islamic Jihad. Abd al-Ghani was arrested by the Palestinian security services as a suspect in a 25 February bombing in a Tel Aviv nightclub that killed five Israelis. He fled from a Palestinian prison last month.

In another development, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Raouhi Fattouh, said the Fatah movement would hold a preparatory meet on 27 May to choose candidates for the legislative elections scheduled to be held on 17 July.

He said Fatah hoped to register half a million voters to vote in its favour.