RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Palestinian Interior Ministry has begun placing restrictions on the use of weapons by Palestinian militants, a step toward fulfilling a long-standing Israeli demand that the armed groups be dismantled, Palestinian security officials said Monday.
The U.S.-backed "road map" Middle East peace plan requires the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups — a step that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) has so far declined to take.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) has linked the Palestinian refusal to confront the militants to justify his own unwillingness to move forward with Israeli road map obligations, including dismantling settlement outposts and stopping settlement growth.
Last week, Sharon welcomed a cease-fire commitment declared by 13 Palestinian militant groups as an initial step but said that unless the groups were disarmed, there could be no progress in the peace process.
A Palestinian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Interior Ministry has distributed a letter outlining weapons restrictions to hundreds of militants in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, a second day of talks between Israelis and Palestinians on the handover of this West Bank town to Palestinian security ended Monday without agreement, an Israeli military official said.
Palestinian negotiators left the meeting but would not comment to reporters. An Israeli commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, said "the ball is in the Palestinians' court."
Control over Tulkarem (search) was to have reverted to the Palestinians on Monday, but the timetable was placed in doubt after a meeting of security commanders on Sunday evening broke up in disagreement over control of key West Bank roads and villages in the area.
Tulkarem is the second of five West Bank towns that Israel has agreed to hand over to Palestinian control. Similar disputes held up the transfer of the isolated desert oasis of Jericho, which took place last week. Tulkarem, located on the Israel-West Bank line, is in a much more sensitive location.
The weapons restrictions limit militants to a single weapon and bar them from loading the weapons or carrying them in public, the official said. He said the measure obligates militants to license the weapons with the Interior Ministry and forbids them from changing their serial numbers.
Many militants possess more than one weapon.
The ministry has asked militants to sign the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
The release of the letter coincides with Israeli demands that Palestinian officials gather illegal weapons.
Israeli defense officials have conditioned Israel's pledge to withdraw from five West Bank cities to a Palestinian agreement to take action on the weapons issue.
Israel welcomed the Palestinian move.
"This is an important step," said a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "However, it is not sufficient. To see this as the ultimate solution to disarming all the terrorists is far from reality, but its a good first step."
Leaders of the al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a militant faction affiliated with Abbas' Fatah faction, confirmed they had received the document and said they were considering the offer.
Kamel Ghannam, an al Aqsa leader in Ramallah, said militants would not sign the pledge until Israel carries out a planned military withdrawal from five West Bank cities.
"Once Israel withdraws, we'll be able to sign it," Ghannam said, adding that he has misgivings about its long-term implications. He said the group remains opposed to giving up its arms altogether.
"We're afraid this is the first step toward disarming us," he said. "We're not sure the Interior Minister won't issue a new order in the next month telling us to hand over our rifles."