RAMALLAH, West Bank – Most gunmen with ties to President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement have given up their weapons as part of an amnesty deal that seeks to improve ties between Israel and Abbas's moderate Palestinian leadership, a senior Palestinian security official said Sunday.
A major confidence booster for both sides has been Israel's amnesty offer for gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent Fatah offshoot that has carried out scores of attacks against Israelis since 2000.
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Under the program launched last month, more than 300 Al Aqsa gunmen have surrendered their weapons to Palestinian authorities and pledged to refrain from violence, said a senior Palestinian security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.
He said all but three Al Aqsa members have joined the program.
The official said 25 gunmen from Islamic Jihad also signed the pledge and handed in their guns, defying the group's leaders, who have vetoed the idea. Islamic Jihad shares the militant anti-Israeli ideology of Hamas, also gets backing from Iran, and has carried out several deadly suicide bombings in Israel.
Israeli officials said they could not immediately verify the Palestinian officials account, but they did not express doubts about it. They also could not immediately say whether groups other than Al Aqsa were eligible for the amnesty program.
In another sign of renewed trust, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are to meet Monday to prepare for November's U.S.-sponsored Mideast conference. Olmert's office said the talks would be held in the West Bank town of Jericho at 1:00 p.m.
Palestinian officials said Abbas and Olmert have begun talking about a broad outline of a future peace deal, which could be presented to the November conference in the United States.
"We will discuss the political horizon," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said of Monday's meeting, which would mark Olmert's first visit to a Palestinian town as prime minister.
Gaza's fall to Hamas also spurred renewed coordination on security issues between Israel and the Abbas-installed government in the West Bank, after a seven-year suspension during the second Palestinian uprising.
The Palestinians are eager to restore the situation quickly to what it was before the outbreak of the uprising in September 2000, including assuming full control over West Bank cities again. Israel has agreed in principle, but the military has been slow to remove its West Bank checkpoints and reserves the right to chase Palestinian militants anywhere.
"So far, we are not satisfied with the progress," said Palestinian Information Minister Riad Malki, adding that the West Bank government hopes to "take full security control of the territories."
Hamas legislator Mona Mansour, meanwhile, said more than 400 Hamas activists have been detained by Abbas' security forces in the West Bank since the fall of Gaza. Mansour said she did not know how many have since been released.
Abbas said after the Hamas takeover of Gaza that he would not tolerate militias in the West Bank.
In other developments, 950 Palestinians were returning to Gaza on Sunday, after being stranded in Egypt since June. They were among some 6,000 Palestinians trapped in Egypt by a closure of the Gaza-Egypt border, fallout from the Hamas-Fatah fighting that led to the Hamas takeover of Gaza.
Also Sunday, 950 Palestinians returned to Gaza after being stranded in Egypt since June. They were among some 6,000 Palestinians trapped in Egypt by the Gaza-Egypt border's closure, fallout from Hamas's violent takeover of Gaza.
Samira Ghabun, 45, from Gaza, said she had been returning home from Saudi Arabia for her daughter's wedding in June, which was postponed while she waited for 45 days in Egypt.
"It was a journey from hell," she said. "We were squeezed in a stadium on the Egyptian side and then they took us on buses for 12 hours to Gaza."
The Gaza-Egypt border remains closed, but the travelers are returning in groups via an Israeli-controlled crossing. The first group got back to Gaza last week.
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