A bid by Police Commissioner Insp.-Gen. David Cohen to force out one of Israel's most valued district chiefs, Cmdr. Uri Bar-Lev, who heads the southern district, erupted on Monday into a full-scale dispute between Cohen and the man who appointed him, Minister for Internal Security Avi Dichter. First, Cohen released a statement saying Bar-Lev would "complete his duties and retire from the force" in 2009. Sources close to Bar-Lev immediately expressed outrage at the move, insisting that Bar-Lev had learned about his "retirement" on the police email network and had no intention of retiring. Then Dichter stepped into the argument, openly undermining Cohen by stating that he had not given his approval for Bar-Lev to be made to leave the force in any way. Under Bar-Lev's leadership, the southern district - which covers two-thirds of Israel - has seen a reduction in crime by over 50 percent over the past three years. Cohen's announcement was made as part of a reshuffling of senior police figures, a process the source said was motivated by cronyism and which has left many in the force feeling embittered. "Bar-Lev read about his socalled retirement on the police e-mail network, when he received a mass e-mail from Cohen on Monday afternoon," the source said. "But Bar-Lev has no intention of retiring. He plans to stay in his post and continue serving until he reaches his retirement age," the source added. Bar-Lev is a popular figure in rocket-battered Sderot, where he frequently appears after rocket attacks to offer words of encouragement to local residents. BarLev, who lost his leg while serving as an elite soldier in Lebanon, has often offered support to others who suffered the same injury, such as Osher Tuiito, the eight-year-old Sderot boy who had a leg amputated after being caught up in a Kassam rocket attack. "You will walk again and when you get out of hospital we'll play soccer together," Bar-Lev told the boy during a visit - one of many - to the children's intensive care unit at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer in March. On Sunday, Bar-Lev was advised by Cohen to take a study leave. Bar-Lev, who has a BA in engineering and a second BA in political science, rejected the offer. A representative of Cohen told The Jerusalem Post that "Cmdr. Bar-Lev had a conversation with the commissioner about the future of his service." But in his statement, Dichter said he had "not approved Bar-Lev's resignation or leaving the force in any way." The minister had "only approved study leave" for Bar-Lev. According to figures released by the police, 61,920 crimes were recorded in the southern district in 2007, a dramatic decrease from the 76,934 offenses committed in 2004. In light of the reduction, Bar-Lev was awarded an honor by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to mark his contribution to Israel's fortitude. The shake-up of police brass, which is expected to go into effect next May or June, has been marked with irregularities stemming from Cohen's desire to help out old-time friends such as Dep.-Cmdr. Jackie Bray, currently head of the Israel Police's Financial Crimes Division, and Cmdr. Shai Amihai, head of the police's Human Resources Division, the police source said. Amihai, who has passed his retirement age of 57, was given an extension to stay in office by Cohen. After learning of Amihai's extension, several other commanders had also requested extensions in their posts as district commanders past their retirement ages, the source said, leaving no room for Bar-Lev, who was supposed to be rotated to a new district. Bar-Lev, aged 49, is eight years away from retirement age. Bray has been promoted to commander, and will become head of the Israel Police's Lahav Unit. Cmdr. Yoav Sagolovich, currently head of the Lahav Unit, will be shifted to head of Israel Police's interrogations division, while the current head investigator, Yohanan Danino, is set to replace Cmdr. Uri Bar-Lev as head of the police's Southern District. "Bar-Lev is an important and highly valued police district commander. He is saluted by local businesses for his efforts. He will not resign before his time and he cannot be fired. He has every intention of remaining," the source said.