Palestinian militants tell PA won't hand any weapons over
Say ready to keep arms out of sight; Abbas under growing international pressure to rein in militant groups.
A new low-key attempt by the Palestinian Authority to disarm at least some militants has already run into trouble: gunmen said Wednesday they'll keep their weapons out of sight, but won't hand them over.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is under growing pressure from the United States and Israel to rein in militants. He has said he will do so by persuasion, not force, and has bought himself some time by getting militants to agree to a temporary truce with Israel.
Over the weekend, Abbas announced he is forming two committees, one for the West Bank and one for the Gaza Strip, to try to get 523 militants on Israel's wanted list off the streets, find them jobs and persuade some to give up their guns. The fugitives form the hard core of the armed wings of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a group linked to Abbas' Fatah movement.
Most of the fugitives are former members of the security forces, and Abbas is proposing they return to their jobs, Abdel Fattah Hemayel, the head of the West Bank committee, said Wednesday. During more than four years of fighting with Israel, the policemen had used their government-issue rifles in battles with Israeli soldiers, and would be able to keep the weapons after rejoining the security forces, Hemayel said.
Other fugitives had bought weapons, and the Palestinian Authority is offering to buy the guns, said Hemayel. The Palestinian Authority also promises to find jobs for all wanted people.
Hemayel denied reports that Abbas issued a presidential decree urging armed men to voluntarily hand over their weapons within two weeks. Hemayel and other senior officials said there was no decree, only a decision to form the committees, and that the armed men had not been given a deadline.
However, the militants appear to be rebuffing Abbas' attempt to co-opt them.
"We agreed to hide our weapons, to keep them out of public view, but we are not going to hand them over to the Palestinian Authority," said Kamal Ghanem, an Al Aqsa fugitive. "They asked them to give us the serial numbers of our guns, but we did not."
Hamas and Islamic Jihad spokesmen also said Wednesday that the groups would not hand over weapons.
"We stopped using these weapons after the declaration of quiet, despite the daily violations (of the truce) by Israel," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman. He said a demand that gunmen hand over their weapons "is not acceptable."
Abbas is not expected to crack down on the gunmen. His main problem appears to be with armed men from his Fatah movement, not with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are tightly organized, while the Al Aqsa Brigades consist of small bands of gunmen without a central command.
Al Aqsa gunmen have largely been responsible for growing lawlessness in the West Bank, with some of them engaging in extortion, kidnapping and other crimes against Palestinians.
Last week, Fatah gunmen shot up Abbas' offices and three restaurants in the West Bank city of Ramallah, a defiant response to demands that they disarm. Abbas fired the West Bank security chief, Ismail Jaber, over the incident, but the gunmen have not been arrested, even though they are known to police.
A senior U.S. envoy in the region, security coordinator Gen. William Ward, hinted at dissatisfaction with Abbas' performance Wednesday. "We can always do more," he said when asked about Abbas' actions so far. "We have a ways to go, and we will continue to work very hard with the (Palestinian) leadership to continue to take these positive steps."
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres also urged Abbas to disarm the militants, saying a temporary truce agreement reached in Cairo last month was insufficient.
"They have an agreement but there are also rifles and the combination of an agreement and rifles is not a very pleasant one," Peres said.