- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

JERUSALEM — The Palestinian Authority yesterday outlawed groups that espouse violence, moving to meet a key Israeli demand for action against militants and boosting a U.S.-backed peace plan.

The decree — which came as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas met in Jerusalem — is identical to one issued in 1998 but effectively rendered invalid during the 33 months of violence that followed the collapse of U.S. peace efforts.

Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas met for two hours at the Israeli leader’s official residence just days before twin summits in Washington between each leader and President Bush. The talks centered on Israel’s demand that the Palestinians disarm militants and Mr. Abbas’ demand for the release of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails.

No bold steps came out of the meeting. Mr. Sharon’s office said he had pledged to consider Palestinian requests for additional prisoner releases, further Israeli withdrawals from Palestinian towns and the dismantling of Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian lawmaker Saeb Erekat said the delegation called the meeting “a disappointment” because action was held off pending the meetings in Washington. Mr. Abbas will hold talks at the White House with Mr. Bush on July 25; Mr. Sharon meets him July 29.

The violence that has wracked the Middle East since September 2000 has dropped considerably since Palestinian militant groups declared cease-fires on June 29. Islamic Jihad and Hamas declared a three-month truce, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement called a six-month cease-fire.

But disagreements have stalled progress on the “road map” peace plan, which calls for ending violence and creating a Palestinian state by 2005.

In an effort to satisfy Israel, the decree issued yesterday by Mr. Arafat banned “incitement that encourages the use of violence that harms the relations with foreign countries” and said violators would be judged according to Palestinian law.

In language that seemed directed at militant groups, the decree also banned “illegal organizations that encourage violence and arouse the public to bring about change through force” and “incitement that encourages the violation of the agreements signed by the [Palestine Liberation Organization] and foreign countries.”

The Palestinian news agency Wafa, which carried a text of the decree, said it had been issued by Mr. Arafat to reaffirm the 1998 ban. The move follows a Palestinian statement Saturday pledging to restore law and order in Gaza.

The Israeli statement after the Sharon-Abbas meeting did not mention the decree, but repeated the demand for more action against militants, who have killed hundreds of Israelis during the nearly 4-year-old insurgency.

“The prime minister told his counterpart that the Palestinian Authority must act immediately and in a clear-cut way to dismantle the terror organizations,” the statement said, setting such action as a condition for further Israeli moves.

Hope amongst Palestinians increased in recent days that Israel was growing more willing to consider releasing more of its estimated 7,700 Palestinian prisoners. Israel has agreed to free several hundred but resisted demands for a mass release.

Israeli officials also had angered Palestinians by ruling out releasing members of the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But Cabinet minister Gideon Ezra said yesterday that it would be possible to free members of the groups who were not implicated in deadly attacks.

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