Scores of wanted Fatah militants in the West Bank have turned in their weapons, under an arrangement in which Israel will grant them effective amnesty as a gesture to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
The Prime Minister's Office, apologizing for an earlier denial, acknowleged Sunday that Zacharia Zbeidi, head of the Fatah Tanzim militia in the West Bank city of Jenin and one of the highest-profile Fatah commanders on Israeli wanted lists in the territories, is among the nearly 200 militants to whom Israel plans to offer amnesty.
Most of the fugitive militants have signed documents that announced their resignation from the paramilitary organization and a promise to refrain from terrorism. As of Saturday night, nearly 150 of the 178 militants had signed the document. Scores of them had turned in their weapons by Sunday.
Abu Obeida, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, harshly criticized Fatah for the amnesty agreement, saying it was meant to destroy the spirit of the resistance and allow Israel to focus on Hamas militants.
The offer to clear the Fatah men from the lists of wanted fugitives is part of a package of measures which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is to formally present to Abbas in a meeting with the Palestinian Authority chairman on Monday. The gestures will also include a release of prisoners.
On Saturday, an Israeli official denied Palestinian reports that Zbeidi was on the list. But the Prime Minister's Office reversed course on Sunday morning, conceding that the reports were correct.
The effective amnesty would extend to nearly 75 percent of the wanted militants of the Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.
Israel refuses to grant similar status to several dozens of the remaining known members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, and there are Palestinian demands that they also be included in the deal. The list of the wanted members of the Fatah's military wing was prepared by the Shin Bet and was compiled following meetings between Israeli officials and a PA security delegation headed by Ziad Habrich, commander of the Preventive Security in the West Bank.
Anger over plan to let Hawatmeh return Meanwhile, rightists and families of victims of terror attacks have reacted with anger to reports quoting Israeli security sources as saying they are inclined to allow the head of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Nayef Hawatmeh, to enter the West Bank on Wednesday, as part of the package of goodwill gestures.
Minister of Strategic Threats Avigdor Lieberman was quoted Sunday as saying that the aging Hawatmeh, whose organization was responsible for the killings of many Israelis in attacks going back more than three decades, should be allowed to enter, and then immediately arrested.
Families of the victims said Sunday that under no circumstances should Hawatmeh be allowed to return. DFLP militants carried out an operation against the northern town of Ma'alot on May 15, 1974, in which 22 schoolchildren were killed.
But Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said Saturday that "We need to view the request of the PA Chairman regarding Hawatmeh's entry into the West Bank favorably, especially since it does not involve entry into Israel and it is for a limited period of time."
"Even though Hawatmeh dealt with terrorism in the past, under the current circumstances he is proving to be a person capable of contributing toward leading the Palestinians toward a more rational condition," Vilnai added.
At the scheduled Monday talks between Olmert and Abbas, a meeting which was orginally planned for Sunday, Israel will present the Palestinian leader with additional gestures, including entry permits to the West Bank for senior officials from the Popular and Democratic Fronts, as well as promises for lifting roadblocks in the West Bank - as soon as the necessary preparations are completed by the security forces.
"These are measures that we believe will contribute significantly to bolstering Abbas," a senior political source in Jerusalem said Saturday night. "They hold political risks for Olmert, but it is a reasonable risk."
The meeting between the two leaders will be held at the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem. In the original planning, Olmert had been scheduled to visit Jericho in the West Bank, but that has been postponed. No other ministers will be included in the meeting with Abbas, but earlier, Olmert will hold preparatory meetings with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Both Israel and Palestinian officials have expressed hope that the amnesty deal and Monday's meeting will start a new chapter in the relations between the two sides.
"Ultimately, we want the Palestinian people to reach an understanding that they have much to gain through dialogue and negotiations while the extremists can only offer death and destruction," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.
"We are trying hard to turn the page," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
At a meeting in Egypt last month, Olmert and Abbas agreed to try to restore relations to what they were before the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000.
The list of prisoners that are slotted for release includes 250 names, most members of Fatah, and the rest from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front (DFLP).
The adult prisoners scheduled for release have at least one year of their sentence left, while the minors have at least six months. Elderly and sick prisoners are also expected to be included.
"No once can claim that Israel is releasing prisoners that do not have significant portions of their sentence still to serve," a political source said.
A ministerial committee on the prisoners will meet Tuesday to approve the list, and initiate the process of releasing them, expected to take several days. Olmert would also like to gain the release of some of the veteran prisoners jailed before the Oslo Accords in 1993, as long as they were not involved in attacks that killed Israelis.
Referring to the PFLP, the DFLP, and other Marxist-Leninist offshoots of the PLO, the political source said that even though Israel is not certain what their views are on the internal power struggle between Fatah and Hamas, Israel would like to encourage them to support Abbas and the head of the PA's emergency government, Salem Fayad.
However, the General Secretary of the PFLP, Ahmed Sa'adat, who is in jail for his role in the October 2001 assassination of the leader of the Moledet party, Rehavam Ze'evi, is not on the list of prisoners to be released.
The effort to draw the various non-Islamist factions toward supporting Abbas is also behind Olmert's inclination to accede to the request of the PA chairman to allow the head of the DFLP, Hawatmeh, and other senior figures from his group and the PFLP to enter the West Bank.
Abbas would like these leading veteran figures in the PLO to participate in a conference that will offer his leadership and the Fayad government legitimacy. The gathering is expected to take place in the West Bank, and entry is likely to be allowed for a specific period of time.
The agreement with the Al-Aqsa fugitives includes four stages:
1. They will promise to refrain from terrorism and cut their links with the group.
2. They will spend a week in holding areas of the PA, where they will not be allowed to use cellular telephones or contact members of the group.
3. They will restrict their movements, for a three-month period, to the area where they reside.
4. After three months, they will be allowed to move freely in the West Bank.
"Our aim is to remove 180 persons from the list of targets of the Shin Bet, so that they can now focus on Hamas and Islamic Jihad," a political source said.