RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian officials Thursday backed away from a pledge to crack down on gunmen who shot up Mahmoud Abbas' (search) office building, underlining the difficulties authorities face in restoring order in the chaotic West Bank (search).
The Palestinian leader was in the building but unhurt in the gunfire late Wednesday. He ordered his forces to go after the gunmen, who security officials said had "crossed a red line" by attacking the seat of government. But in the light of day, officials adopted a conciliatory line, and one even admitted they feared coming under armed attack themselves.
Under a compromise, the gunmen will be allowed to rejoin their former units in the security forces.
Abbas has vowed to bring law and order to Palestinian areas and to reform his overlapping and corruption-plagued security forces.
The task is difficult. More than four years of conflict with Israel have badly weakened the forces. Many militant cells have begun acting like street gangs, using their weapons and positions to accumulate power, which they are reluctant to cede to Abbas.
Under a truce declared Feb. 8, Israel handed two West Bank towns back to Palestinian security control. The agreement was for five towns, but Israel halted the process, charging that Palestinian security has not carried out a pledge to disarm fugitives.
The truce has almost completely quelled Palestinian-Israeli violence and has focused attention on internal Palestinian problems.
Abbas has been working to bring militants under control by persuasion. He met with a group of them Tuesday, asking them to disarm, abide by the truce with Israel, and return to normal life.
Late Wednesday, security officials ejected six militants from Abbas' headquarters, where they had sought refuge several years ago after Israel began hunting down fugitives, the militants said. Arafat had allowed more than 20 fugitives to take refuge in Palestinian Authority (search) headquarters.
Security officials said they had asked the six — all former members of the security forces themselves — to rejoin their units and hand over their weapons or leave the compound. One official said on condition of anonymity that "they were involved in kidnappings, blackmailing, harming people, shooting them."
The men, along with nine other militants, then attacked the compound before rampaging through Ramallah, damaging several restaurants, forcing shops to close, and screaming threats against Abbas, witnesses and officials said. No injuries were reported.
Abbas responded by ordering the militants arrested, more troops deployed throughout the city and compensation paid to the businesses that were damaged, security officials said.
"They have crossed the red line," one official fumed. "They attacked the presidential headquarters. They are defying the Palestinian Authority and now we have to take harsh steps against them, otherwise they will control the city and spread chaos."
But the security commanders quickly climbed down.
A Palestinian security official confirmed the militants would be allowed to return to their units but would be demoted one rank. Another official said they could not be arrested, because their colleagues would retaliate by attacking the Palestinian Authority's forces.
One of the militants, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said under the agreement, they would not be allowed to serve in security units inside Abbas' headquarters.
Tension also flared in Tulkarem, where a mob of angry Palestinians burned down a Palestinian roadblock after officers shot and wounded a man, security officials said.
Late Wednesday, the officers stopped three men, reportedly suspected car thieves, and after an argument, a police officer shot and lightly wounded one of the men.
A large group, some of them armed, then stormed the roadblock. The police fled, and the protesters burned several tents used to house the officers and set fire to the Palestinian flag that flew above.
On Thursday morning, police issued an ultimatum to seven of the protesters to turn themselves in or face repercussions.