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Palestinian Authority puts limits on civilians’ carrying of weapons - Sharon hails recent steps against militants; signs by parties raise peace hopes (BALTIMORE SUN) By Peter Hermann JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 01/27/05 9:08 PM EST)Source: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/nationworld/bal-mideast0127,1,4772796.story BALTIMORE SUN BALTIMORE SUN Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM -- The Palestinian Authority issued a ban Thursday on civilians openly carrying unlicensed weapons, while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon offered rare high praise of recent Palestinian actions to rein in militants -- two more significant signs of the growing momentum for peace talks.

In a speech Thursday night in Tel Aviv, Sharon said he felt mediators for both sides were making great strides.

"I believe that the conditions are now ripe to allow us and the Palestinians to reach a historic breakthrough in the relations between us," he said.

In an interview with the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth published Thursday, Sharon praised the recent actions of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen.

"There is no doubt that Abu Mazen has begun to work," he said. "I am very satisfied with what I hear is happening on the Palestinian side, and I have a serious interest in advancing the process with him."

There was no word Thursday on how the Palestinian police, who are unarmed in West Bank cities occupied by Israel´s army, would enforce the new weapons ban -- the latest move in a gradual crackdown on militant groups and an effort to re-establish order on lawless streets. Au thorities were able to rein in militants in the 1990s using the same tactic, seen as an indirect way of confronting militias without provoking clashes.

Abbas has repeatedly said he would not arrest militants nor confiscate their weapons, and he is trying to secure a cease-fire to end attacks on Israelis. He has deployed armed officers in northern Gaza to quell rocket fire on a nearby Israeli town.

Meanwhile, Abbas told reporters in Ramallah that he needs a formal declaration from Israel on a truce to bring a halt to violence. "The Israelis have to respond quickly," he said. "We cannot wait for a week or two."

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority´s chief negotiator, said in an interview Thursday night that Israeli officials told him during discussions Wednesday that they would consider signing a truce declaration and would have an answer next week.

"This is essential," Erekat said. "The public on both sides must understand that this is a new day. When both leaders declare officially on the same day and in the same communiqué that they will stop the violence against the other, then we have a real chance."

But Israeli leaders repeated Thursday their past objections to signing a cease-fire, saying that they want attacks to stop first, and that it is up to Palestinian officials to determine how that is accomplished.

An ´internal´ issue

"Negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the terrorist organizations are an internal Palestinian issue," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon. "What we said is that if as a result of these arrangements it will be quiet on the Palestinians side, we will respond to that by refraining from military activity."

Underscoring the deep-seated skepticism that still surrounds the peace process, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom called a cease- fire a "ticking bomb which will blow up in our faces." Speaking to Israel Radio after talking by telephone with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he said, "A cease-fire as such is not our goal."

Palestinian and Israeli leaders met several times Wednesday to discuss security arrangements, the further deployment of Palestinian police in southern Gaza and a possible summit between Sharon and Abbas.

U.S. Middle East envoy William Burns met with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

"We have no illusions that such a moment of opportunity is fragile," he told reporters. "The United States is doing everything it can to help."

Thursday, Palestinians said the Israelis were preparing to pull troops out of four West Bank cities, and that they were planning to release between 500 and 900 prisoners as a goodwill gesture leading up to a summit.

But Gissin cautioned that talks are preliminary, and he accused the Palestinians of trying to advance their standing through the media by exaggerating accomplishments made during preliminary discussions.

"Now they are talking about a commitment on our part to release prisoners," Gissin said. "They are trying to turn these initial contacts into political negotiations and bypass the real steps that are necessary to end terrorism and incitement.

"What we said was that we understand their concerns about prisoners and this issue will be discussed in the proper time and place," he added. "We did not reject it, but we haven´t offered it either. We need a cessation of violence, not just a temporary, tenuous cease- fire."

Israeli officials said Thursday night that hundreds of armed Palestinian police had begun taking up positions in southern Gaza, where they are to stop militant attacks on Jewish settlements, roads and army posts.

In northern Gaza, the militant group Hamas suspended attacks during the cease-fire talks, avoiding a confrontation with Palestinian police. The sit uation in the south is more volatile, with active militant groups and splinter groups. Before Palestinian police deployed, Israeli soldiers fatally shot a Palestin ian they said was running toward a restricted area.

Erekat said the order to ban the display of unlicensed weapons fulfills a campaign pledge by Abbas to restore order, and is a signal to Israel that he is serious. During the campaign last month, militants appeared alongside Abbas at speeches and rallies with weapons.

´Clear indication´

"The decree today is a clear indication of what is going on within our ranks," Erekat said. "I detect a new atmosphere between us and the Israelis. We both realize that the Israelis and the Palestinians are demanding a new chapter. And we are going to give them that."

In a further signal that he is serious, Abbas said Thursday that officials have decided to name Nasser Yousef as the new interior minister, putting him in charge of the security branches that are supposed to be streamlined into three branches.

Yousef was in charge of cracking down on militants, particularly Hamas, in the 1990s under orders from Yasser Arafat during the early days of an interim peace accord. Mohammed Dahlan, who implemented the orders, also is poised to hold a senior position in Abbas´ new government. (Copyright © 2005, The Baltimore Sun 01/27/05)

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