TULKAREM, West Bank – Hosni Abu Ghreib figures he has a good deal. After four years on the run from Israeli forces, the militant has traded his mask for a Palestinian police uniform and a steady paycheck. To top it off, he still has a gun.
His transformation was made possible by the jobs-for-fugitives program, the Palestinian response to Israeli and U.S. charges that Palestinians have failed to crack down on militants. Palestinians say they are getting militants off the streets without confrontations.
About 200 gunmen have joined Palestinian security forces in Tulkarem and Jericho since Israeli troops returned control of the towns in March, said Palestinian legislator Abdel Fattah Hemayel, who is in charge of finding work for the West Bank fugitives.
“Now I have a paycheck, I can be sure my children will not go hungry,” said Abu Ghreib, 30, a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, proudly waving the papers confirming his appointment as a policeman.
He is still waiting to hear what rank he will receive, hoping for a senior position to reflect his role in the fight against Israel. “I want something good. I was wounded twice by the Israelis and have given my whole life to the struggle,” he said. “I have my honor.”
But Israel says the plan to absorb the gunmen into the security forces is not enough and that Palestinians must keep their promise to confiscate weapons. The issue threatens the cease-fire between Israel and Palestinians, who accuse Israel of stalling and endangering moves to resume peacemaking.
Under the terms of the Feb. 8 truce, Israel is due to release hundreds more Palestinian prisoners and turn over three additional West Bank towns. But it says it will not comply until Palestinians get tough on militants.
The militants are supposed to turn over their weapons when they start their new job, but some admit they don’t. An Islamic Jihad gunman who is in talks with the Palestinian Authority to receive a government job, said he and nine other militants for the group still have their weapons.
“We have put them away somewhere safe,” said the gunman, who identified himself only as Abu Ahmed, fearing the Israelis could still track him down.
The militants want “to give politics a chance,” he said, warning they could still return to violence. “Those who say the uprising is over are wrong. We are in a cease-fire, but if the Palestinians don’t get their demands, there will be more uprisings,” he said.
Israel also is concerned that militants in the security forces who have turned in their weapons still have access to guns on their new job. But Hemayel played down that concern, saying the militants must answer to their new commanders and can no longer use their weapons as they see fit.
In Tulkarem, a major mission awaited the 150 recruits on Monday. Local security chiefs said they were mobilizing some 400 officers, including the former gunmen, to arrest the leader of a gang of car thieves and arms dealers who shot up the local police station. He was still free late Monday.
The new officers said they have no problem now enforcing the law.
“I am ready to take part in this operation,” said another former Al-Aqsa gunman who identified himself as Abu Mahmoud. “It feels good to be part of the Palestinian police.”
The Palestinian security forces were severely weakened in more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, allowing renegade gunmen to control many areas of the West Bank. Unwilling to give up their power, gunmen have battled police several times in recent days.
In Jenin, a militant stronghold, dozens of Palestinian gunmen and police exchanged fire for a second day Monday after a local militant leader said police shot him in the leg without provocation.
In the Gaza Strip late Sunday, two dozen masked gunmen with the ruling Fatah Party briefly took over the local government building in Beit Lahiya, where Hamas militants won seven seats and Fatah six seats in recent local elections.