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700 militants in Nablus to join Palestinian security forces


JERUSALEM - About 700 Palestinian militants in the volatile West Bank city of Nablus have agreed in principle to join the Palestinian security forces as part of a campaign to transform the gunmen into government servants, Palestinians officials said yesterday.

The Palestinian leadership has been working on the program for months and says more than 500 militants in other West Bank cities have already signed up to work in the security forces or take civilian jobs in government. The deal in Nablus, a hotbed for militants, is the most comprehensive agreement so far.

"This will be the test case," Samir Huleilah, the chief of staff of the Palestinian Cabinet, told Reuters.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, initiated the campaign in his effort to persuade militants to halt attacks against Israel.

But Israel has repeatedly demanded that Abbas take tougher action, saying he should arrest and disarm members of the armed factions. Abbas has criticized the gunmen for attacks but has refrained from confronting them directly.

"We have seen statements from Abbas that are very good, but we haven't seen a follow-through on the ground," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "We think it is very important that he start reining in the chaos in the Palestinian territories, where every armed group is a law unto itself."

At the urging of Abbas, militant groups agreed at the beginning of the year to a temporary calm; in February, Abbas and Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, announced a truce.

But the truce has become increasingly frayed. Islamic Jihad has carried out a number of shootings against Israeli targets, calling them a response to Israeli arrests.

Israeli security officials said Wednesday that Islamic Jihad members planning attacks would now be targets of Israeli forces. Israel had generally refrained from airstrikes against militants under the truce. But the Israeli air force fired missiles at militants on Tuesday and Wednesday in northern Gaza, though no one was injured.

"Any means to neutralize the organization are relevant and possible," said Gideon Ezra, the public security minister.

Under the Palestinian Authority program, militants must sign a form pledging to refrain from attacks, said Abdel Fattah Hamayel, a member of the Palestinian parliament.

The militants in Nablus have signed on, though Abbas still must approve their job applications, Hamayel said.

The militants are supposed to turn in their weapons as well, though compliance has been spotty, Palestinian officials say.

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