The Palestinian Authority on Sunday announced plans to disarm the military wing of the ruling Fatah party, known as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
Under the plan, members of the violent group will be drafted into the PA security forces following a training program, the details of which will be announced in the coming days.
Interior Minister Nasser Yousef announced the plans during a special meeting of the Palestinian cabinet in Ramallah, attended by the PA security forces’ top brass.
The Palestinian Authority has been under increasing international pressure to disarm terror groups and enforce law and order following Israel’s evacuation of 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia announced that the plan is part of the Authority’s efforts to put an end to the violence and anarchy that have been raging through the territories.
“We have agreed today to establish five new camps for training and hosting 'stragglers,"' Qureia said, referring to the al-Aqsa members.
He said the disarmament efforts would begin in the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Nablus, and then move into other areas.
Following the meeting Yousef told reporters that his security forces have already taken moves to prevent armed groups from displaying their arms during mass demonstrations, in line with a PA ban on carrying arms in public.
Yousef hinted that Israel is partly responsible for the chaos in PA areas, saying “the anarchy on the streets reflects a political anarchy and difficult economic conditions, which originate from Israel’s policies. We need the effort of all the factions and security forces in order to enforce the law in our territory.”
Fearing internal strife, Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas is eager to sway armed groups away from armed conflict with Israel, as a first step towards disarmament.
Israeli officials received the announcement with skepticism. "There have been a lot of declarations before. The most important thing is to see what kind of action we have," said Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Not everyone is convinced however that Israel’s policies in the territories are behind the chaos. Over the weekend, Tawfik Tourawi, intelligence chief in the West Bank, accused Palestinian officers of negligence and blamed them directly for the anarchy.
Mohammad Dahlan, Minister for Civil Affairs, called on the PA to start the disarmament campaign by defusing the arms of Fatah gunmen, most of whom are affiliated with the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
“Without these arms we would have still been refugees, with no rights and no aspirations to an independent Palestinian state. But today we need to dispose of these arms, which were an illustration of Palestinian unity, before they become a burden on our people,” Dahlan said Saturday.
But previous attempts by Abbas to control terrorists have had little success, and it was unclear whether the latest effort would work. Over the last months many members of the al-Aqsa Brigades were integrated in the PA security forces, but the hard core of Fatah’s armed wing have resisted moves towards complete disarmament.
Although al-Aqsa is linked to Fatah, its thousands of members have fragmented loyalties, and it is unclear whether terrorists would agree to give up their autonomy.
“Al-Aqsa leaders and activists are authorized to disarm our group. They will follow in the spirit of our martyrs and our imprisoned members,” a senior member of the group told Ynet.
“We support the government’s decision and we will not breach the temporary calm. Yet in return, we need to protect ourselves, and therefore at this point in time we will not dispose of our arms, which are a guarantee for self-defense,” he added.
However, al-Aqsa spokesmen in the West Bank and Gaza Strip said they were confident the movement would join the new plan.
"In principle there are no problems," Said Abu Ahmed, an al-Aqsa official in Gaza.
The Associated Press contributed to this report