Official says PA dismantling Al-Aqsa and other militant groups
PA Interior Minister says Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade 'no more' after Friday West Bank shooting.
The top Palestinian security official said on Saturday his government was dismantling militant groups, including those connected to President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction.
Officials said Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades largely agreed to go along with the government's security plan in the West Bank without putting up a fight.
"There is no Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades any more," Interior Minister Abdel-Razak al-Yahya told Voice of Palestine radio, referring to Fatah's largest armed group.
The pledge by Yahya came one day after Palestinian militants killed two Israelis who were hiking near the West Bank city of Hebron. Two of the militants were also killed in an ensuing gunbattle.
Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed at a U.S.-sponsored peace conference last month in Annapolis, Maryland to launch negotiations with the goal of reaching a statehood agreement by the end of 2008.
But Israel has said it will not implement any agreement until the Palestinians meet their obligations under the long-stalled "road map" peace plan to rein in militants in the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Hamas Islamists seized control of Gaza in June after routing Abbas' secular Fatah forces there, but Fatah still holds sway in the West Bank.
The Palestinians assert that they are meeting their security obligations in the West Bank by launching a security clampdown in some of the largest cities.
After commenting on the dismantling of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Yahya said: "We wish they [other groups] will respond positively and follow al-Aqsa's example."
He said Abbas's Western-backed government has started "working to dismantle" other militant groups, though he did not spell out how that would be accomplished.
He stopped short of threatening to deploy his forces against those who resist the security clampdown, but he said: "We will impose law and order."
Western diplomats say Abbas' forces have taken serious steps in parts of the West Bank to impose law and order, and to crack down on Hamas militants.
But the diplomats questioned the government's ability to disarm Fatah militants on a larger scale, noting Al-Aqsa's decentralized command and control structure.
A unit of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in the Gaza Strip issued a statement in the Gaza Strip accusing Yahya of being a "collaborator" who follows "American and Zionist masters."
"We will pursue Jihad and resistance until we liberate Palestine from the Zionists," the statement said.
Hamas bans Gaza anniversary rallies by rival Fatah
Tensions between the West Bank government and Palestinian militant groups was evident over the weekend in Gaza as well. Hamas on Saturday declared a ban on public Fatah rallies in a fresh move to tighten their hold on power, but Fatah officials vowed to defy the order and go ahead with planned marches to celebrate the movement's 43rd anniversary next week.
The anniversary celebrations are planned to begin on December 31 and to last until January 3.
Scores of Fatah student activists were rounded up late Friday inside Gaza City's Al-Azhar university, accused by Hamas of plotting to foment public disorder from inside the Fatah-affiliated institution.
Salem al-Rifi, 21, who was held for nine hours, said some 25 other students were detained with him. They were told to sign a pledge not to participate in any Fatah rallies or face jail and a fine. Most of them were released before morning after interrogation and warnings.
Al-Rifi said posters, paints, balloons and flags intended for use in Fatah anniversary events were confiscated from the students, along with their mobile phones.
"When they arrest us, we become more determined," he said. "It means we are doing something right."
When Fatah last staged a mass show of opposition in Gaza, with a rally of 250,000 supporters on November 12, Hamas security men cracked down hard, killing eight marchers and injuring 85.
Hamas blamed Fatah for instigating the violence. However, human rights groups and participants in that rally said Hamas used excessive force against the protesters. There were no recorded injuries to Hamas personnel.
Fahmi Zaarir, a Fatah spokesman in the West Bank said the movement would hold rallies in Gaza next week, regardless of the latest order. "We will defy Hamas decisions by planning popular activities in all of Gaza," he said.
Jamal al-Jarrah, a senior Hamas security official, said the restrictions had been ordered in the interests of public safety.
"The ban is to protect civilian lives," al-Jarrah told a Hamas-backed Gaza newspaper. "They (Fatah members) want to kill and terrorize citizens in such rallies."