Abbas orders crackdown on defiant militants
Premier takes tougher line after Fatah gunmen open fire on Ramallah compound
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered a crackdown on Thursday on Ramallah militants who defied demands that they lay down their arms under peace moves he had agreed with Israel. Abbas took a tougher line after half a dozen gunmen from his own ruling Fatah faction fired at his Ramallah compound on Wednesday night while he was inside and then went on a rampage in the West Bank city, damaging several restaurants and shops.
The militants, among 26 fighters holed up at the battered presidential headquarters since Yasser Arafat gave them refuge at the height of a 4-and-half-year-old uprising, were then barred from the compound, a Palestinian official said.
In another sign of lawlessness plaguing the Palestinian territories, an angry crowd burned down tents used as offices by Palestinian police in the West Bank town of Tulkarem early on Thursday after police shot and wounded three suspects.
"Abbas has issued an order to prevent any security violations and harm to citizens' property," a spokesman said.
"Security units have been deployed to prevent further attacks." It was not clear to what extent Abbas, who has used dialogue instead of confrontation in his dealings with anti-Israeli militants, was ready to act and whether the matter would extend beyond Ramallah, the West Bank's political and commercial hub.
Abbas, elected in January after Arafat's death, is struggling to impose law and order and reform corruption-tainted security forces after reaching a cease-fire deal with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last month.
Islamic militant group Hamas announced Thursday it is discussing whether it might join a Palestinian government after contesting parliamentary elections for the first time this July.
The internal debate is the latest sign of change within Hamas, which seeks Israel's destruction and has always rejected invitations to join the Palestinian Authority because it was born from interim peace accords.
Buoyed by a strong showing in local elections and opinion polls, Hamas agreed with Abbas this month to suspend attacks until the end of the year and said it would take part in the July 17 election.
"The group will study the participation in the government after the parliamentary elections in July and it will make a decision based on the interest of the Palestinian people," said Gaza spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.
Hamas has shown signs of shifting toward the political mainstream following Arafat's death and ahead of Israel's plan to abandon the occupied Gaza Strip this summer.
The group, which rebuffed invitations from Arafat to join the government, is expected to emerge from elections as a more powerful political force - winning support from voters who see Abbas' dominant Fatah as corrupt and ineffective.
Meanwhile, Israeli rabbis and right-wing groups on Thursday urged soldiers to desert in a fresh attempt to thwart the planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and closing of all Jewish settlements in the territory.
Dozens of rabbis and opponents of the pullout published a flier calling on conscript, career and reservist soldiers "not to present themselves for army missions after the (Passover) holiday" and thereby avoid operations which would support the controversial pullout.
Passover, one of the most important festivals in the Jewish calendar and which marks the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt, begins April 23 and lasts for eight days. The Gaza pullout is scheduled to start in late July.
The call came just days after the settler lobby and its allies suffered two bitter defeats at the hands of the Israeli Parliament, robbing them of their last chance to scupper the pullout through political means.
On Monday, the Knesset voted down a bill which would have demanded the holding of a referendum on the withdrawal. A day later, MPs approved the budget, removing the last legislative hurdle in the way of the plan to clear all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four isolated outposts in the West Bank.
Also on Thursday, the Israeli Army demolished six unauthorized Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank, witnesses said.
Five villagers were arrested following a dispute with the soldiers in charge of bulldozing the houses in Wad Rahal village west of Bethlehem, they said. - Agencies