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Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas intends to begin dismantling the armed groups in the PA in the near future, his bureau chief Rafik al-Husseini announced yesterday evening.

Husseini said the plan is to begin the disarmament process with groups that claim to operate as part of Fatah, and only afterward to move on to disarming the Islamic organizations.

"The beginning will be within the house," he said, referring to the Fatah movement, "to show the other groups that the process is serious."

Husseini refrained from providing a clear timeframe for the disarmament, but said that Abbas is insistent that Hamas "lay down its arms" immediately after it participates in the elections to the Palestinian parliament, which are scheduled for January.

"The groups within Fatah will be required to disarm and join the security services, or we will have to treat them as if they have violated the law. There is no longer an Israeli presence in Gaza, so bearing arms in the streets and the existence of militias are not justified. After January, Hamas will no longer need its weapons either," Husseini said.

There are dozens of armed groups operating in the Gaza Strip under the name of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the military wing of Fatah, in addition to groups such as the Popular Resistance Committees and the Abu Rish Brigades, which claim they operate under the Fatah umbrella.

The PA has made do until now with declaring a ban on organizations openly bearing arms, but that prohibition has never been enforced.

Husseini's announcement followed a speech earlier in the day by Abbas, in honor of the completion of the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip, in which he declared, "From this day forth, there will be no more security turmoil and weapons chaos and abductions, which are not characteristic of our culture."

Abbas did not name the groups he had in mind, but emphasized that the PA would not permit the factions in the Gaza Strip to remain armed. He did not discuss what would happen in the West Bank.

Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal also addressed the weapons issue yesterday. Contrary to previous occasions on which Meshal rejected outright the possibility of Hamas disarming, he told Hamas' official radio station in the Gaza Strip: "We reject the possibility that anyone in the Palestinian arena would address the armed struggle or its weapons from the basis of the American and Zionist positions. We are thinking about this matter only in terms of the good of the Palestinian people."

All Hamas leaders who have addressed the disarmament issue in recent weeks have rejected the matter out of hand, including the heads of the leadership in the Gaza Strip and the heads of Hamas' military wing.

In Abbas' festive speech yesterday, he also announced a series of imminent projects for the Gaza Strip, including constructing a port, a central north-south artery based on the Salah al-Din road, water purification works, and new neighborhoods and classrooms, especially in southern Gaza and the West Bank.