Wednesday, February 16, 2005

JERUSALEM — About 350 Palestinian gunmen, wanted by Israel as terrorists, are to become part of the Palestinian Authority security forces, according to Palestinian sources.

The move is seen by Palestinian officials as a way of defusing tension by bringing men at the forefront of the conflict with Israel into the ordered ranks of the police and other security arms.

There was no immediate reaction from Israel, which has agreed to call off its hunt for the wanted men except for those who are involved in planning new attacks.

It has called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to disarm the wanted men and keep them under surveillance by his own security forces.

As for armed militants not on its wanted list, Israel has let it be known that it views their incorporation into the Palestinian security forces as a positive step.

Terrorists sought by Israel pose one of many obstacles to efforts to end the 4-year-old Palestinian uprising.

Both sides are observing a fragile cease-fire as Israel moves ahead with plans to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Israel’s parliament yesterday approved legislation for the withdrawal 59-40, with five abstentions.

The legislation allows Prime Minister Ariel Sharon tao order the evacuation of Jewish settlements beginning five months after the Cabinet endorses the bill. Cabinet action is scheduled for Sunday.

On the issue of Palestinian gunmen, Palestinian Agriculture Minister Ibrahim Abu al-Naja told the Jerusalem Post that the men to be recruited include members of the armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The militant Muslim groups previously had refused any role in the Palestinian security forces.

The groups have been responsible for most of the suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel during the Palestinian uprising.

“The move is designed to protect them against Israeli assassination attempts,” Mr. al-Naja said.

The leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad had demanded that Mr. Abbas recruit their followers into the security forces as a condition for accepting a temporary truce with Israel.

“The Israelis and Americans should be happy with this move,” said a Palestinian security official, “because it means that these men will stop all of their [militant] activities.”

Mr. Abbas’ senior security adviser, Mohammed Dahlan, said Tuesday that the Palestinian Authority will take firm steps to enforce law and order in the Palestinian territories, including imposition of the death penalty on people convicted of murder by Palestinian courts.

Mr. Abbas met with the new U.S. Mideast security envoy yesterday, and an aide to the prime minister described the talks as positive.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William E. Ward was named this month to help Palestinians reform their security forces after mutual cease-fire declarations by Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas.

Tension with Israel rose yesterday when Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired two mortar rounds at the Jewish settlement of Morag.

No injuries or damage were reported, but the attacks threatened the fragile truce.

• Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report from Tel Aviv.

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