Leading militant groups in Palestinian territories vowed Monday to defy President Mahmoud Abbas’s bid to disarm hundreds of gunmen wanted by Israel. Leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad rejected Abbas’s efforts outright while Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, part of his own Fatah movement, appeared divided on how to respond.
Abbas, elected in January to succeed the late Yasser Arafat, took action after a group of militants fired at his West Bank compound and went on a shooting rampage in Ramallah last week.
He is not only under pressure from Israel and the United States to fulfill pledges made at a February cease-fire summit but also fears Palestinian voters, fed up with lawlessness, will punish his ruling Fatah group in a July parliamentary election.
Abbas issued a decree on Sunday giving committees of officials in the West Bank and Gaza two weeks “to resolve the issue of the fugitives,” referring to about 530 militants on Israel’s wanted list for alleged involvement in attacks.
Under the decree, the wanted men would voluntarily disarm and be recruited into the Palestinian Authority, a security source said. Israel would no longer pursue them under a deal Abbas reached with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
It was unclear what, if any, action Abbas would take if militants refused to comply. He has tried to use dialogue rather than force despite Israel’s demands for a crackdown.
Also in Palestine, about 1,000 security officials will be forced into retirement by the end of the week as part of Abbas’ security reforms, a senior Palestinian official said Monday.
In Israel, Sharon pledged Monday to push ahead with expanding a large Jewish settlement near Jerusalem, despite U.S. concerns and Palestinian protests it would cut them off from the city.
“I don’t see construction in the E-1 area as a serious problem,” Sharon, referring to the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, was quoted as telling lawmakers at a closed-door session. “We must link Jerusalem to Maale Adumim.”
Sharon spoke to a parliamentary committee a week before he meets George W. Bush at the U.S. president’s Texas ranch.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, responding to news last month of Israeli plans to build 3,500 homes between Maale Adumim and Arab East Jerusalem, said settlement expansion was at odds with U.S policy and should come to a “full stop.”
But Sharon believes an extension of Israel’s biggest settlement, home to 30,000 people, is in line with Bush’s assurance to him last year that the Jewish state could expect to keep some large settlement blocs under a final peace accord.
Sharon also insisted Monday that Israel had no intention of razing the homes of the 8,000 Gaza settlers after they are uprooted from the territory, parliamentary sources said.
Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip said Monday they want to be moved as a group to one community in Israel, and hope to pass along this message to Ariel Sharon in their first meeting with the prime minister after several months of angry silence.
The planned meeting and the new demands, including a report that settlers want an additional $1 billion in compensation, indicate a growing number among them see evacuation as final.
One settler leader said a fair payout and united move could defuse resistance to the pullout, set for this summer. Current plans call for about $900 million in total compensation.
Also Monday, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres was heading to the United States for talks with Vice President Dick Cheney on the planned pullout from the Gaza Strip. – Agencies