- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2005

Today, Israel is scheduled to hand the West Bank town of Tulkarm (long a hotbed of support for Palestinian rejectionists) over to Palestinian Authority security control. On Wednesday, Israel turned Jericho over to PA security control. If the Palestinians are successful in policing these cities, Israel will be relinquishing more territory. Israel’s willingness to continue doing this will depend to a great extent on PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s ability to disarm Palestinian terrorists operating out of territory he controls.

To his credit, Mr. Abbas has ended the poisonous relationship with the Israeli government that was the legacy of Yasser Arafat. He has done this by laboring to persuade Palestinians to end attacks against Israel and by firing PA security officials who failed to prevent Hamas, perhaps the most dangerous of the terror groups, from firing mortar rounds and homemade rockets at some of the Jewish settlements that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is removing from Gaza. PA security forces have also assisted Israel in uncovering weapons-smuggling tunnels in Gaza.

The problem is that Mr. Abbas has barely begun to do all that will be necessary. On Thursday, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and 11 other Palestinian radical groups announced that they would extend an informal truce for the rest of the year. At the same time, in doing so, they stopped short of a complete cease-fire. and disagreed among themselves over its duration. Just 12 days ago, Hamas and PIJ officials said there could not be a halt to the violence so long as Israel did not withdraw its forces from Palestinian areas (terminology that these groups often use to refer to all of Gaza, the West Bank and pre-1967 Israel).

Even more ominous are the reports that Hamas and like-minded groups are taking advantage of the current period of relative quiet, in which Israel has halted its assassination of terrorist leaders, to rebuild their forces. Hamas, for example, is said to be working at a heightened pace in covert metal workshops in Gaza to produce new weaponry, and there are also reports that it has been secretly test-firing rockets into the Mediterranean Sea. Last month, Mr. Abbas indicated he would unfreeze Hamas funds in an effort to persuade the group in favor of moderation.

“Do not get intoxicated by the current calm in the region. As long as Abbas fails to collect arms from the terror groups, the conflict will not end,” the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, said on Friday. “These groups are utilizing the calm to further arm themselves as well as produce explosives and build up their depleted ranks.”

Thus far, Mr. Abbas’s policy toward Hamas and the like has been similar to the one adopted by Mr. Arafat right after he signed the Oslo I accord with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in September 1993: attempting to cajole terrorists into behaving themselves. When the first suicide bombings occurred in Israel in April 1994, Hamas gave its answer. From 1994-2000, Mr. Arafat persisted in his refusal to decisively crush the terrorists (particularly Hamas) or destroy their infrastructure. Instead, he employed a revolving door policy of sporadic, intermittent arrests and subsequent releases of terrorists. Then, in the fall of 2000, when he made a strategic decision for war with Israel, Mr. Arafat freed terrorists from jail and took other steps to give a green light for attacks.

Clearly, Mr. Sharon believes that Mr. Abbas is no Arafat. On Friday, for example, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel would refrain from military offensives in order to make the cease-fire a success. And the Sharon government late last week issued orders barring Israelis from moving to four isolated northern West Bank settlements that Mr. Sharon is determined to leave. The announcement came several days after similar orders were issued barring Israelis from moving to the Gaza settlements. Under Mr. Sharon’s leadership, Israel is taking the necessary steps to give peace a chance.

No final settlement, however, is possible unless Mr. Abbas disarms the Palestinian terrorists. But last week, as Israel prepared to withdraw from Jericho, Mr. Abbas did the kind of thing that undermines confidence: promising to release from prison the terrorist responsible for the 2001 murder of Israel’s tourism minister and the financier of the Karine-A, the Iranian vessel captured while smuggling arms to Mr. Arafat. Fortunately, Mr. Abbas backed down under pressure from Israel. He would be well-advised to refrain from reaching out to terrorists in the future.

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