RAMALLAH, West Bank – Reacting forcefully to Hamas (search) rocket and mortar fire in the Gaza Strip in defiance of a cease-fire with Israel, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) dismissed his top security commanders Thursday and sent a message to the militants that he will not tolerate further truce violations.
Among about 20 senior officers who lost their jobs were the top two commanders, Brig. Gen. Abdel Razek Majaidie (search), chief of public security, and police chief Saeb al-Ajed, security officials said, a clear sign that Abbas is serious about enforcing the two-day-old truce.
Hamas claimed responsibility for salvos of rockets and mortars — 30 mortars and 26 rockets, one of the biggest barrages in four years of violence — aimed at two Israeli settlements in southern Gaza, Neve Dekalim and Gedid. The Israeli military said there were no casualties. Israeli TV stations showed video of minor damage to some houses.
Hamas said the barrage was retaliation for the death of two Palestinians Wednesday. One blew himself up with a bomb he was apparently trying to plant and the other was shot dead by Israeli soldiers as he approached a settlement.
Also Thursday, armed Palestinians stormed the main Palestinian Authority jail in Gaza and killed three prisoners, part of a clan feud. Abbas also took that as an affront.
"These are very dangerous developments, and they violate the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority," Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Hassan Abu Libdeh said. "No one can continue with these violations."
In a two-pronged response, Abbas sent a stern warning to the militants after dismissing his security commanders. And he postponed Thursday's trip to Gaza to meet with militant leaders.
On Friday, Abu Libdeh said, Abbas would meet with the militant leaders in Gaza and "inform them that there is only one Palestinian Authority and one leadership, and (he) will not accept any measures that can subject our national project to dangers."
Abu Libdeh added, "The Palestinian Authority will not tolerate any actions that will sabotage the agreement reached with Israelis on a mutual cease-fire."
Israel, which has linked further progress in peace talks to Abbas' ability to control militants, called for an immediate end to the violence.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon contacted Egyptian, American and Palestinian officials Thursday to express concern. "We informed them we expect the Palestinians to act immediately against these attacks," said Asaf Shariv, an aide to Sharon.
At a summit Tuesday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, in the presence of the president of Egypt and king of Jordan, Sharon and Abbas declared an end to violence and military operations after four years of bloodshed.
Abbas has said all Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have signed on to the truce. But leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups responsible for dozens of bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis, deny that.
Up to now, Abbas has insisted he will not confront the militant groups and disarm them, as Israel and the internationally backed "road map" peace plan demand, preferring negotiations. However, he hinted that his patience has limits.
In a statement accusing Hamas of violating the truce, the central committee of Abbas' Fatah movement declared, "We are still committed to language of dialogue, but at the same time, we warn against continuation of these irresponsible actions."
Abu Libdeh said Abbas took "punitive measures against officers who did not undertake their responsibilities, which led to the latest developments in Gaza."
Abbas is committed to reforming Palestinian security services. Last month, he ordered retirement for more than 1,000 veteran officers. However, officials said Thursday's dismissals were the direct result of the Hamas mortar and rocket fire and the attack on the jail.
Sharon, meanwhile, signaled in a newspaper interview that he is ready to release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners involved in deadly violence if militants stay on the sidelines during Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza this summer.
The prime minister said Abbas stressed at the summit that the release of long-serving prisoners is a top priority.
"He (Abbas) told me simply that it is a major problem," Sharon told the Haaretz daily. In the past, Israel has refused to release those involved in deadly attacks.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sharon would consider the release of prisoners "with blood on their hands" on a case by case basis.
Also Thursday, Sharon declared that he will not allow a referendum on his plan to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip and evacuate four West Bank settlements in the summer.
"Referendum means opposition to the plan," Sharon told members of his Likud Party in Tel Aviv. "My position on a referendum is clear. I'm totally opposed to it. There will be no referendum."