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Fatah militants sign clemency deal

In a bid to help Abbas, Israel takes scores of Palestinians who renounce violence off its wanted list, for now.

July 16, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Scores of battle-hardened Palestinians signed pledges to renounce violence against Israel and turned in their weapons Sunday, accepting the Israeli government's first collective offer of clemency in 14 years for gunmen listed as wanted terrorists.

Israeli officials said the offer went out selectively, to 178 Fatah militiamen, in the expectation that they would join the Palestinian security forces and turn full attention to disarming the rival Hamas movement, which calls for Israel's destruction.

By day's end, Palestinian officials said they believed that all those on the clemency list had agreed to the terms of the deal, which aims to bolster the Fatah-led Palestinian government in the West Bank and help advance peace talks between its leader and Israel.

"They have deactivated themselves as terrorists," said Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "They are handing over their guns and, as part of a new security relationship, Israel will not pursue them anymore."

Israel has periodically freed batches of Palestinian prisoners to promote peace talks or in exchange for its captured soldiers. But it has not taken off so many Palestinian fighters from its wanted list in a single stroke since the 1993 Oslo peace accords.

That agreement gave a blanket amnesty to guerrillas of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement so they could create a Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Eventually, many took up arms against Israel again, forming the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade at the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000. It is nominally a Fatah militia but not under its control.

Israeli officials will not say how many Palestinians from various militant groups, including Hamas, are wanted by its security services; until Sunday, the number was believed to be in the hundreds. Palestinian officials said the 178 men on the clemency list, all members of Al Aqsa, made up about three-fourths of the wanted Fatah members.

The clemency deal stopped short of pardon or amnesty. Israeli officials said they could resume efforts to arrest any of the militiamen and charge them with past offenses if a case-by-case review of their actions over the next three months warranted it.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, had been lobbying for such an arrangement for months in periodic U.S.-backed negotiations with Olmert.

Initially cool to the idea, Israeli officials embraced it after Abbas turned forcefully against Hamas, his partner in a power-sharing government, following the militant group's takeover of the Gaza Strip last month.

Abbas has vowed to disarm Hamas' clandestine armed wing in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. To do that, he has told Olmert, he needs to beef up his Preventive Security force with Al Aqsa gunmen but cannot recruit them out of hiding unless Israeli troops stop hunting them.

Palestinian officials said a deal was struck after a meeting last week between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, Salam Fayyad.

That led to quiet negotiations between commanders of Preventive Security and Israel's internal security agency, Shin Bet, to compile the clemency list. A document addressed to the men on the list began circulating Saturday, and they lined up at Palestinian security compounds across the West Bank on Sunday to sign it.

A key part of the document reads, "The Israeli security and judicial authorities will refrain from arresting or pursuing me after I sign this document. I must be committed to the decisions of the Palestinian Authority and its security apparatus ... and refrain from carrying out any military or security activities against the Israelis."

Zakariya Zubeidi, the Al Aqsa leader in the city of Jenin, said he signed reluctantly.

"I do not trust the Israelis," he told reporters. "But I am not going to be an obstacle to a political solution."

"Guns and negotiations are different forms of resistance," he added. "We have to know how to use each one at the right time."

Like other wanted militants, Zubeidi had spent years hiding from Israeli forces who frequently raid the West Bank. Since 2002, Israeli officials said, Zubeidi had carried out attacks against Israeli soldiers there and once sent a suicide bomber to Jerusalem; the bomber's explosives-laden bag blew up at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank.

In Bethlehem, Amjad Halawi, 35, ended six years in the underground Sunday, got a haircut and said he would join the Preventive Security force.

Ala Sanakreh, an Al Aqsa commander in Nablus, signed the pledge even though many of his comrades, including his brother, were not offered clemency. "What will happen if the Israelis come after my brother and kill him?" he asked. "Can I stay quiet?"

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