Israeli withdrawal halted until Palestinians disarm militants

Thursday, May 5, 2005

The Israeli government has announced that it has halted withdrawal from three additional West Bank towns until the Palestinian leadership begins disarming terrorists more effectively. The announcement comes in addition to the killing of two Palestinian youths by an Israeli army unit, an action that has been labeled a violation of their February 8 ceasefire.

Map of West Bank (click to enlarge) Source: CIA World Factbook

In Beit Laqia, a crowd of about 300 Palestinian protesters was demonstrating Wednesday against the ongoing construction of the West Bank barrier. When some Israeli soldiers arrived in two jeeps, the Palestinians began throwing stones at them. According to the Israeli army, a unit of six soldiers tried to disperse the crowd, probably using tear gas and rubber bullets, before firing warning shots with real bullets. Finally some soldiers opened fire, killing two protesters, according to witnesses and doctors.

The officer in charge was removed from active duty pending an investigation. "The company commander was suspended in light of errors -- both in the way he conducted himself and in the way in which he led his force," an army representative said.

Several breaches of the peace have occurred since the ceasefire was agreed between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Sharm el-Sheikh Summit in February. Israel has already withdrawn from two of five towns it agreed earlier: first Jericho, then Tulkarm (see map). Both Israel and the United States have repeatedly demanded that the militants be disarmed.

Israeli Military Intelligence Chief Major General Aharon Ze'evi expressed on Thursday his view that the Palestinians were gradually bringing the militants under control. "As far as I know, the Palestinians have completed gathering the weapons of wanted militants in Jericho". Ze'evi explained that Abbas does not want to use force in a crackdown against Hamas, because of their popularity in the West Bank as a competing power with the Palestine National Authority of Abbas.

Both an unnamed local Palestinian official and a militant in Tulkarm, Mohammed Shahada of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, have confirmed that militants in Tulkarm agreed to possibly hand over their weapons in return for jobs in the Palestinian police or government, according to the Associated Press.