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Officials Seek to Retrain Militia

A top Palestinian hints at enlisting members of the Al Aqsa brigade in the security forces.

October 24, 2005|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The Palestinian government signaled Sunday that it would embark on an effort to dismantle the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a violent militia with links to the ruling Fatah political movement.

The initiative, unveiled by Prime Minister Ahmed Korei, calls for members of the group to be incorporated into the Palestinian security forces after a period of training.

How to deal with armed Palestinian factions is the central challenge facing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In talks in Washington last week, President Bush pressed him to act decisively against militant groups that continue to mount attacks against Israelis and sow lawlessness in Palestinian territories.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, created in the early days of the Palestinian uprising that began five years ago, is thought to consist of several thousand fighters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who claim allegiance to Fatah, the movement that underpins the Palestinian Authority.

Riddled with internal rivalries, the group consists of dozens of local cells acting independently with little in the way of an overall command structure.

Many members in the past were in the Palestinian police or other security branches, and Abbas' government has indicated for months that it believes that returning many of them to similar jobs is the best way to rehabilitate the gunmen.

So sensitive is the subject, however, that a statement issued by Korei after a meeting with top security chiefs did not mention the brigade. But Palestinian officials confirmed that the proposal was aimed at the group.

"We have agreed to establish five new camps for training and housing the fighters," Korei said, adding that the first would be set up near the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus.

Several local leaders of the militia said they were ready to cooperate, but questioned whether the Palestinian government would follow through on offers to train and employ them.

"We do not have any objection to being incorporated into [Palestinian] Authority institutions," said Ala Sanakreh, an Al Aqsa leader in the Balata refugee camp outside Nablus. "But we want our integration to be serious. All we have gotten previously were empty promises."

Israel, which has long objected to Abbas' strategy of attempting to co-opt the militant groups rather than confronting them head-on, expressed skepticism about the plan.

"The question is whether you can trust these people to do the job they're expected to do," said Raanan Gissin, an advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "You're recruiting people who were involved in terrorism to fight terrorism. We've seen this revolving door before."

On a related matter, however, Israel appeared to be backing away from threats to impede the participation of the Islamic militant group Hamas in parliamentary elections early next year.

"It's an internal Palestinian affair," Gissin said.

Sharon has said Israel might take steps to hinder the vote if Hamas fielded candidates, but he has drawn little international backing. A recent rebuff came after the Bush-Abbas talks.

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