Palestinian civilians banned from carrying weapons
Winning rare praise on Thursday from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for steps to end violence, the new Palestinian leadership banned civilians from carrying weapons and indicated it will appoint a new interior minister known for his hard-line stance against militants.
The moves come amid signs of a renewed peace process between the two sides.
In southern Gaza on Thursday, Palestinian police practised for deployment in some of the most volatile areas of the coastal strip.
A similar deployment in northern Gaza last week has been effective in stopping militants from firing rockets at nearby Israeli towns and settlements.
Halting militant attacks is a key Israeli demand before negotiations can go forward.
Also, in a test for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s ruling Fatah movement, the first municipal elections in Gaza’s history were being held on Thursday in 10 districts in the coastal strip. The militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad were expected to pose a stiff challenge to Fatah in the races.
Abbas has won assurances from armed groups that they will halt attacks on Israel, provided Israel stops military operations, including arrest raids and targeted killings of Palestinian fugitives.
Abbas told reporters on Thursday that he expects to hear from Israel “as soon as possible” on his offer of a ceasefire declaration.
Mohammed Dahlan, a senior Abbas adviser, said in an interview that Israel has agreed in principle to stop pursuing militants and halt the targeted killings.
Dahlan said the Israeli assurance came in a meeting a day earlier between senior Palestinian and Israeli officials. Dahlan participated in the meeting.
A senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel promised in the meeting to release hundreds of prisoners—a key Palestinian demand—and that the number to be freed is expected to be about 900.
The official also said that Abbas and his Prime Minister, Ahmed Qureia, have decided to name Nasser Yousef as the new Palestinian interior minister.
Yousef had been in charge of cracking down on militants in the mid-1990s, and his appointment will send a clear signal that the Palestinian leadership intends to rein in violence.
Ban on weapons
In another sign of those intentions, Qureia on Thursday issued an order banning civilians from carrying weapons in the Palestinian territories, Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said.
In some areas of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian militants often openly brandish their automatic weapons, highlighting the lack of law and order and control by Palestinian security forces.
The Palestinian security council also decided on Thursday to retire 1Â 076 police officers to make room for a new generation of officers.
A flurry of bilateral meetings on Wednesday has raised hopes that the sides can reach an agreement on ending four years of bloodshed.
Israeli government spokesperson Raanan Gissin refused to comment on the meetings, but Israel has said it will respond to “quiet with quiet”.
In central and southern Gaza, Palestinian police were to have taken up positions on Thursday. However, deployment was delayed because of technical difficulties, and will begin on Friday, Palestinian commanders said.
Training for the deployment, three police jeeps carrying armed police officers in full uniform drove down the main street of the southern town of Khan Younis on Thursday. In a practice run, officers set up a checkpoint on the main road, while a commander instructed them on how to conduct security checks.
Optimism after talks
Despite the delay, optimism was running relatively high after Israeli and Palestinian officials held their first round of diplomatic talks in months on Wednesday, and the sides looked toward the possibility of a Sharon-Abbas summit in the next two weeks.
“There is no doubt Abu Mazen has started to work,” Sharon was quoted as saying in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Abbas is widely known as Abu Mazen.
“I am very satisfied with what I am hearing is happening on the Palestinian side and I am very interested in advancing processes with him.”
In the Yediot interview, Sharon said he will not stop all Israeli military operations for the time being, but will make gestures toward the new Palestinian leader. He did not elaborate.
“I intend to advance the chance for an opportunity for an agreement with the Palestinians, I intend to make gestures toward Abu Mazen and at the same time keep my eyes open and examine the situation on their side,” Sharon said.
In Wednesday’s diplomatic meeting, Palestinian negotiators proposed a joint ceasefire declaration, Erekat said. Israeli officials have said in the past they are not interested in such a formal declaration. The Palestinians are reluctant to declare a truce unilaterally, without United States-backed guarantees that Israel will halt military operations and a formal Israeli commitment to a truce.
Erekat said his Israeli counterparts agreed to consider the idea of a declaration.
“They [the Israelis] did not reject this. They will give us the final answer next week,” he said.
The internationally backed “road map” peace plan requires both sides to issue end-of-violence declarations. The plan never got off the ground, but there are renewed hopes it can be revived.
Abbas was asked on Thursday about reports that he is seeking a ceasefire declaration within two weeks.
“We are very interested in the issue of the ceasefire, and the issue of a declaration of a ceasefire, and we’ve informed the Israelis of this, and the Israelis have to respond quickly and not wait for another two or three weeks,” Abbas said. “Such an issue cannot bear waiting.”
He spoke to reporters on Thursday, before leaving the West Bank for visits to Jordan, Egypt, Switzerland, Russia and Turkey.
Sharon spokesperson Asaf Shariv said Israel is examining the Palestinian proposals.
“I don’t know if a ceasefire is the right wording,” he said. “If there is quiet on the Palestinian side, Israel will respond with quiet.”
In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, Palestinians in 10 districts were choosing among 414 candidates for 118 municipal council seats.
The Gaza vote follows a December 23 election in 26 West Bank towns and villages, and a January 9 presidential race in which Abbas was chosen to succeed Yasser Arafat, who died on November 11 last year.
Hamas made a strong showing in the West Bank race—taking over many councils from Fatah—and was also expected to do well in Gaza, where the militant group is popular. Hamas has recently shifted its focus toward politics, and agreed to halt its attacks, at least temporarily.
In a sign of renewed US involvement in the region, Burns, the US envoy, held separate talks on Thursday with Abbas and Qureia. Burns is to meet Sharon later on Thursday, after talks on Wednesday with Israeli Vice-Premier Shimon Peres.
After meeting Qureia, Burns said he is encouraged by the steps taken by the Palestinians to halt violence, and Israel’s response to those moves.
“We have no illusions that such a moment of opportunity is fragile,” Burns said. “The US is determined to do everything it can to help.”—Sapa-AP