Israel offers amnesty to boost Fatah

In a bid to strengthen Fatah against Islamic militant group Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rewarded the Abbas government on Monday with amnesty to 178 fugitives.

Meeting for the first time since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to a package of economic and security steps to bolster Fatah's government in the West Bank against the Islamic militants.

The summit came hours before President Bush announced that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would host an international conference later this year. The meeting would include Israel, the Palestinians, and some of Israel’s Arab neighbors to help restart Middle East peace talks. The president also pledged a $190 million aid package aimed at helping Mr. Abbas and Israelis create conditions for a resumption of peace negotiations.

After Hamas reestablished a measure of stability in the Gaza Strip, Abbas, Israel, and the US are under pressure to demonstrate a comparable improvement in Palestinian security and prosperity in the West Bank.

The diplomatic progress followed signs of a fledgling cease-fire between Fatah militia members and Israel thanks to an amnesty agreement over the weekend for 178 fugitives linked with Abbas's political party. After seven years of attacks against Israeli civilian and military targets, Fatah gunmen are handing in their weapons and saying they are willing to abandon their military uprising against Israel.

"This makes it easy for us to tell the people peace is the way and war is not," says Jamal Nazzal, a spokesman for Fatah in the West Bank. "This is the first time in almost six years that Israel indicates its readiness to stop the policy of targeted killings, which has cost so many Palestinians their lives. This is a good reason to be optimistic."

Olmert and Abbas also discussed ways to remove military roadblocks in the West Bank that have handicapped the Palestinian economy and worsened living conditions. Israel is planning to unfreeze more than $100 million of Palestinian customs taxes held in escrow when the Palestinian government was controlled by Hamas.

An Israeli government spokesman said the government had scheduled this Friday as the date for the release of 250 Fatah prisoners promised by Olmert to Abbas at a regional summit last month.

But analysts see the first-ever amnesty of some 178 Fatah fugitives as a key step in helping Abbas restore a modicum of order, critical to his standing both domestically and internationally.

With an agenda set according to the whims of local cells of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades throughout the Palestinian territories, the Fatah militias have helped ratchet up violence with Israel and sow lawlessness among Palestinians. If Abbas can dismantle militants loyal to his own party, it will make it easier for him to extend the moratorium on violence to small, more disparate groups.

"If they present it as a way to end the militias and put them under the apparatus of the [Palestinian Authority] security services – meaning that it is an attempt to clean the Palestinian house – then it will be received well by the public because they haven't been in favor of all the militias," says Jamil Rabah, a Ramallah-based pollster.

Though some are considered criminals who armed themselves under the guise of fighters in the Palestinian uprising, many of the Al Aqsa Brigade commanders included in the amnesty deal are seen as grass-roots leaders in the struggle against Israel.

Signing those militants on to a non-violence pledge bolsters support of Abbas among figures within his own party who have the popular standing akin to that of local folk heroes.

"The Al Aqsa Brigades activists have signed a pledge to cease attacks against Israel," said Zakaria Zubeidi, a popular Al Aqsa leader from the West Bank city of Jenin who was on Israel's most-wanted list as a terrorist. Mr. Zubeidi was granted amnesty as part of the deal, according to the Palestinian Maan news agency. "Al Aqsa Brigades won't be an obstacle to any political project aimed at solving the Palestinian question," he said.

To be sure, the steps are modest, and the likely usefulness in bolstering Abbas and Fatah against Hamas are far from certain.

"The amnesty is part of one package of Israeli measures, along with the prisoner release. But if you look at that one, it's very small, it's not the big fish," says Yossi Alpher, who helps edit the online journal, which covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Yes, it's small potatoes, but the question is can Olmert keep up a string of such measures to build up Abbas, and can Abbas use them to improve security in a way that's visible to Israelis. I'm hopeful, but pessimistic."

In an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz newspaper published on Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad insisted that the gestures were not sufficient to revive the momentum for peace, and that only negotiations could restore the Palestinian public's faith in diplomacy.

A spokesman for Israel's prime minister said the sides discussed how to reach a final peace settlement but didn't broach any of the thorny issues expected to be at the center of the negotiations.

Fatah figures in the West Bank say they're deeply skeptical that the measures announced in the past few days will have much impact on their movement's standing.

"Israel has no interest in a strong Fatah, these are just words," says Qadura Fares, a Ramallah-based Fatah leader. "I haven't seen them removing checkpoints, or settlements, or stopping construction of the wall. This claim that the Americans or Israelis want to help Fatah in the West Bank – it's a joke."

Other Palestinian analysts say that if the Palestinian Authority could absorb the militants into the security services, it could be seen as a viable alternative to the armed uprising. But for now, Abbas is seen as a weak leader by the vast majority of Palestinians, lacking both the popularity of the deceased Yasser Arafat and the ability to extract concessions from large segments within his own movement, let alone other Palestinian factions like Hamas.

Interviews with about a dozen Fatah leaders in the West Bank over the past week yielded a consistent view of an Abbas who is increasingly seen as connected to US and Israeli interests, and deep concern that this perceived closeness threatens the movement's popularity in the West Bank, as well is Gaza.

Pollster Rabah says, "The message that he has to make is that, 'I'm not a collaborator. I am trying to realize Palestinian rights through negotiations.' "

Hamas, not surprisingly, is also lashing out at the dealings between Olmert and Abbas.

"We want safety and peace for all Palestinians, not just the Al Aqsa Martyrs. This agreement is part of a security agenda to put an end to the Palestinian resistance," says Yayha Mussa, a Hamas leader in Gaza and an elected member of the currently suspended Palestinian parliament. "The ultimate plan is to turn the Palestinian security forces into an apparatus for protecting Israeli settlements and settlers, and this is the agenda of Abbas and Fayyad."

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