NABLUS, West Bank – Palestinian officials said Thursday they reached a tentative agreement to absorb about 700 gunmen in this West Bank (search) city into the Palestinian security services, pushing forward with a campaign aimed at disarming rogue militants.
The program of offering government jobs to militants in exchange for giving up their weapons has been a centerpiece of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' (search) efforts to impose law and order in the chaotic West Bank and Gaza Strip (search).
Israel has said the tactic is ineffective and has demanded tougher action against the militants, and even Palestinian officials conceded the weapons collection would not take place anytime soon.
Still, reaching a deal in Nablus could be significant. The city is widely considered to be a center of militant activity — a concern that was underscored Wednesday when gunmen in a nearby refugee camp opened fire and detonated a bomb as Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) delivered a lecture about the need to end the chaos. No one was injured.
In the latest violence, gunmen in a car opened fire on a Palestinian police station in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, witnesses said, killing a police officer. Police returned the fire. Then the gunmen set fire to a Palestinian lawmaker's car. Zakariye Zubeydi, local leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a violent group affiliated with Abbas' ruling Fatah party, said it was not involved in the attack.
Also Thursday, representatives of the so-called Quartet that drafted the "road map" peace plan tried to revive the process, stressing the need for an orderly Israeli withdrawal from parts of the Palestinian territories.
Foreign ministers from the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia issued a statement in London saying, "This is a moment of optimism in the search for peace in the Middle East, and is an opportunity that should not be missed to revitalize the 'road map."'
Internal violence has become a key issue for the Palestinian leadership. With the security forces weakened by more than four years of fighting with Israel, armed gangs operate freely in many Palestinian areas, and weary Palestinians complain the Palestinian Authority is doing little to restore order.
Abdel Fattah Hamayel, coordinator of the Palestinian committee negotiating with the militants, said the list of Nablus militants would be finalized in the next few days. He said his committee has already struck similar deals with 600 militants in the towns of Jericho, Tulkarem and Jenin.
Nasser Juma, Nablus spokesman for the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, confirmed a deal was in place.
Both men said the agreement would require gunmen to surrender weapons to the Palestinian Authority. However, Hamayel said weapons collections have been slow.
He said Palestinian authorities have collected about 110 weapons in Jericho and Tulkarem — the two towns where Israel has turned over security responsibilities to the Palestinians. He said militants in areas where the Israeli army continues to operate, such as Nablus, are reluctant to part with their weapons.
"In cities that Israel leaves, we collect their weapons," Hamayel said.
Israel has pledged to turn over two more West Bank towns — Bethlehem and Qalqiliyah — to the Palestinians in the next two weeks, if tougher action is taken against militants. There are no immediate Israel plans to withdraw troops from the Nablus area.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said he hoped the latest pledge to disarm the militants would yield concrete results.
"Up until now there has been a gap between the articulation of that commitment and its implementation on the ground," Regev said. "A step that would indicate the implementation of that commitment, meaning disarming terrorist groups, would, of course, be welcomed by Israel."
Israel has called on the Palestinians to maintain calm during the planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank later this summer.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Thursday the two sides have made progress in efforts to coordinate the pullout. But he issued a tough warning if Israeli soldiers or settlers are attacked during the operation.
"All those who interfere with this, and I mean the Palestinian terrorists, we won't let it pass," he said in a speech. "We have known how to deal tough blows to the Palestinian terror in the past, and that's how we'll act if someone tries to disrupt the disengagement."
The Palestinians have pledged to deploy thousands of security forces in Gaza to maintain quiet during the withdrawal.
Israel warned the Palestinians on Wednesday it will launch airstrikes if militants attack during the evacuation — even if it meant causing civilian casualties.