Tuesday, November 16, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian security chiefs yesterday ordered a clampdown on weaponry carried by armed groups throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, after a clash in Gaza City killed two bodyguards of the new Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, Mahmoud Abbas.

They also warned that they will ruthlessly suppress any outbreaks of violence.

The Palestinian Security Committee, grouping various security agencies and led by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, said it wanted to ban weapons from being carried in public places and would begin to register all arms held by militants and members of the public, said Sayeb Elajez, head of the police.

The move also was discussed by Mr. Abbas at a special meeting in Gaza City with the heads of 12 Palestinian factions, many of whom retain their own official and unofficial militias.

However, the security agencies set one significant condition before they would go ahead with the crackdown. They demanded that Israel give assurances that it would not target any of the militias.

In effect, that would require Israel to halt its campaign to eliminate key militants from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Fatah faction’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Such assurances are being sought through the mediation of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, one source said.

The first fruits of efforts to rein in the militias were delivered yesterday, when a key leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades said they would avoid all attacks on Israel for the next two months in the run-up to national elections.

Nasser Juma’a, leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Nablus, is quoted in today’s Jerusalem Post as saying: “We accept a kind of one-sided [truce].”

But he conditioned the cease-fire on the Palestinian Authority’s “treatment of our military groups,” a comment that he made clear referred to financial compensation.

Islamic Jihad, the smaller of two militant Islamist groups, also stated a willingness to stop “martyrdom operations” for 60 days. But Jihad and the Al Aqsa Brigades vowed to continue fighting soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the newspaper reported.

Hamas, the largest Islamic fighting group, has told Mr. Abbas in ongoing discussions that it will not disrupt the upcoming elections, implying an unofficial halt to its suicide bombing and rocket-firing operations, which have proved generally ineffective of late.

But it has refused to declare a cease-fire, a Hamas official said.

“A cease-fire depends on Israel,” said a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zohry, who made a very rare public appearance Sunday at the funeral wake for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, hours before the shooting clashes, in which Hamas was not involved.

“We always reserve the right to retaliate for Israeli aggression,” he added. “We were ready for a [truce] last year — for a three-month period.”

He blamed Israel for that effort’s failure to materialize.

There were no further violent outbreaks between militias yesterday, although protesters in black shirts crammed the central traffic island in Ramallah and yelled slogans similar to those used by militants in the Gaza City clash on Sunday night.

“Abu Mazen and Dahlan, agents of the CIA,” they chanted.

Mohamed Dahlan is likely to regain a major security role such as he held in the short-lived Palestinian government of Mr. Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen and who is almost certain to be Fatah’s only candidate to succeed Mr. Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority.

Elections have been scheduled for Jan. 9, but the Palestinians have set conditions that they expect Israel to uphold.

These include the repositioning of some checkpoints and the redeployment of forces from cities the Israelis seized in 2002, after a wave of suicide bombings directed from within Palestinian Authority-controlled territory.

Another demand is that Israel allow the 200,000 Arab citizens of East Jerusalem, which was incorporated into Israel after the 1967 war, to vote in the Palestinian election.

Israel’s foreign minister said yesterday in Washington that Israel will do all it can to help with the elections, but that no voting would be permitted in any part of Jerusalem.

However, he said Palestinians would be able to vote by mail, as they have in the past.

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