RAMALLAH, West BankÂ – The top Palestinian security official said on Saturday his government was dismantling militant groups, including those connected to President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction.
“There is no al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades any more,” Interior Minister Abdel-Razak al-Yahya told Voice of Palestine radio, referring to the group linked to Fatah.
Yahya vowed to exert broader security control a day after Palestinian militants killed two off-duty Israeli soldiers who were hiking near the West Bank city of Hebron. Two militants were also killed in the gun battle.
Israel arrested at least five Palestinians in the Hebron area following the shooting, the army said.
Palestinian security officials said Abbas’s security crackdown in the Israeli-occupied West Bank was focusing largely on Hamas Islamists, who seized control of the Gaza Strip in June after routing Abbas’s forces there.
The officials said the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades largely agreed to go along with the government’s security plan in the West Bank without putting up a fight.
Israeli officials and some al-Aqsa units say the militant group remains active.
Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed at a U.S.-sponsored peace conference last month in Annapolis, Maryland, to launch negotiations with the goal of reaching a statehood agreement by the end of 2008.
But Israel has said it will not implement any agreement until the Palestinians meet their obligations under the long-stalled “road map” peace plan to rein in militants in both the West Bank, where Fatah still holds sway, as well as Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Tensions between the factions remain high, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas barred Abbas’s supporters from holding an anniversary rally for Fatah on Tuesday.
Fahmi al-Zarir, Fatah spokesman in the West Bank, said Fatah would defy the ban.
LAW AND ORDER
Yahya said Abbas’s Western-backed government was “working to dismantle” other militant groups besides al-Aqsa, although he did not spell out how that would be accomplished.
“We wish they (other groups) will respond positively and follow al-Aqsa’s example,” Yahya said.
He stopped short of threatening to deploy his forces against those who resist the clampdown, but he said: “We will impose law and order.”
Western diplomats say Abbas’s forces have taken serious steps in parts of the West Bank to impose law and order, and to crack down on Hamas militants.
But the diplomats questioned the government’s ability to disarm Fatah militias on a larger scale, noting al-Aqsa’s decentralized command structure.
A unit of al-Aqsa issued a statement in the Gaza Strip accusing Yahya of being a “collaborator” who follows “American and Zionist masters”.
A splinter group of al-Aqsa in Gaza — along with the Islamic Jihad militant group — claimed responsibility for Friday’s shooting attack near Hebron.
Israel has yet to meet its own “road map” obligations to halt all settlement activity and uproot Jewish outposts built in the West Bank without government authorization.