Mofaz freezes handover of West Bank cities to Palestinians
PA says it doesn't plan to disarm militants; Tul Karm official: Militants agree to give up arms to get jobs.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Wednesday he is freezing the handover of West Bank towns to Palestinian security control because the Palestinians have failed to honor their promise to disarm militants.
Mofaz spoke during a meeting of the security cabinet, after the PA security chief said Wednesday the Authority does not plan to forcibly disarm militants. However, a senior commander in Tul Karm said all the city's militants agreed to surrender their weapons voluntarily in exchange for jobs.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian Authority has not been formally notified of the freeze. "It's a very unfortunate approach and decision," he told The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, preparations are underway to free a further 400 Palestinian prisoners, Israel Radio reported. Israel freed 500 prisoners in February.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told the security cabinet that Israel must live up to the promises it made regarding the prisoners.
Israeli and Palestinian cabinet ministers are to meet next week to discuss the release.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the security cabinet Wednesday that he will meet soon with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Israel Radio reported. The radio said the two will most likely meet after Independence Day, which takes place next week.
PA security chief: PA has no intention of disarming militants PA security chief Rashid Abu Shbak said Wednesday the Authority does not plan to disarm militants, despite constant Israeli calls for such a move and a recent pledge to crack down on unlicensed weapons.
"We have no intention of withdrawing arms of resistance," Abu Shbak, the head of the internal Preventive Security Service, told a news conference in Gaza.
Abu Shbak specifically rejected Israel's request for a start to disarmament before it hands over the last three of five West Bank cities it was to return to Palestinian security control under a February truce agreement, but said militants must still honor their commitment to the cease-fire agreed by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and should not take their weapons out in public.
Palestinian officials said top security officials met with militants in Jericho and Tul Karm on Wednesday, pressing them to turn over their weapons voluntarily.
A senior commander in Tul Karm, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that all of the militants in the West Bank city agreed to surrender their weapons within 48 hours in exchange for jobs in the Palestinian police force or other government agencies.
Mohammed Shahada, a local leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Tul Karm, confirmed a deal had been reached. He said some 70 militants participated in Wednesday's meeting, demanding jobs, financial assistance for their families and assurances that they will not be arrested.
He said the officials accepted their demands, and expected militants to begin turning in their weapons in the next day or two. He said more than 100 militants from various groups would participate.
The Palestinian Authority began a law-and-order drive last weekend aimed both at ending lawlessness and ensuring the truce is followed.
Abbas has always said he prefers dialogue with militants to using force to rein them in, but Israel has said repeatedly that there will be no peace negotiations until the dismantling of militant factions.
Abbas: Israel wants Palestinian blood to be spilledPalestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel on Tuesday of wanting Palestinian blood to be spilled, according to the Palestinian government news agency, WAFA.
Abbas has come under stiff pressure from Israel to curb Palestinian militants, but although his rhetoric has become fiercer recently, he has been reluctant to confront them.
"Israelis want Palestinian blood to be spilled, and we don't accept that," WAFA quoted him as saying. "This is a red line. We run our security in our own way, for our people's protection. We work day and night, there are obstacles, and progress is slow."
Still, he said, "the Palestinian Authority is acting to prevent chaos and a proliferation of guns on the streets and in public places."
In a meeting in his office in Ramallah on Tuesday, Abbas also told a group of businesspeople, academics and public officials that the Palestinians "would not accept anything less than 1967 borders," and should not be disheartened by large settlement blocs in the West Bank, because there is a precedent for settlement removal.
"We should not be discouraged when we see huge settlements like Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel and think that these settlements won't be removed," WAFA cited Abbas as saying.
"A settlement in Sinai was removed in Egypt after Camp David, and it is possible now," he said, referring to Israel's dismantling of the Yamit settlement in the early 1980s as part of its withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula under the Camp David peace accord with Egypt.
Abbas has promised to hold a national referendum on any final status agreement with Israel, WAFA reported.