JERUSALEM - Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday that Israel's decision to let Palestinian police officers in the West Bank carry weapons again would help Palestinian authorities maintain law and order.
Israel agreed Thursday to a request by beleaguered Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to allow the use of guns on a provisional basis.
"It will shore up the positive forces that want there to be order and who want to prevent anarchy in these places," Mofaz said during an interview on Israel Radio.
Israeli critics reacted sharply, predicting that the weapons would be used against the Jewish state.
"I don't know what else needs to happen here before we understand that we are dealing with a bunch of murderers, terrorists. To restore their legitimacy and weapons? There is no greater madness than this," said Zvi Hendel, a right-wing member of the Israeli Knesset.
Mofaz did not say when Palestinian police would resume carrying arms. The program would be implemented in stages, he said, and could be reversed quickly if problems arose.
Israel barred Palestinian officers from carrying weapons in most of the West Bank more than two years ago out of concern that they would be used against Israeli troops. Palestinian leaders and civilians have complained that the ban, along with frequent military incursions, has made it difficult for Palestinian police to keep order.
Qureia wants to issue guns to his officers as part of a drive to improve security amid growing lawlessness.
Qureia referred to "chaos" when he submitted his resignation to President Yasser Arafat last month. He later decided to remain in office after Arafat refused to accept his resignation and promised to give him more control over security matters.
This week, Qureia announced a limited initiative that would send uniformed officers out in cruisers to create a more visible law enforcement presence.
Only officers who Israel knows have not been involved in militant groups would be armed, Mofaz said. Their weaponry would be limited to nightsticks and handguns.
"We're talking about clubs and pistols. We do not plan to give any permission to carry live weapons in places where civilians and soldiers will be endangered and certainly not get in the way of [Israeli military] activity," he said.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.