Palestinian militants get jobs for pledge of nonviolence

After years fighting Israel, many give peace a chance

April 15, 2005|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - As a teen, Munir Aqra'a earned Israel's attention by throwing Molotov cocktails, was arrested and spent five years in an Israeli prison.

By age 25, he says, during a second Palestinian uprising, he helped organize attacks that killed four Israeli soldiers and five Jewish settlers.

After four years in hiding in the main Palestinian government compound, Aqra'a is still wanted by the Israelis.

But this week his life took a turn.

After prodding from the Palestinian Authority, Aqra'a signed a one-page pledge to put down his weapons and not engage in attacks against Israel. In exchange, he received a job with the Palestinian security forces and a tentative pledge from Israel that he will no longer be targeted for arrest.

The agreement is the cornerstone of the Palestinian leadership's efforts to gain control over hundreds of militants and reduce the chances of attacks that would threaten a truce the Palestinian Authority and Israel agreed to in February.

Palestinian officials say most of the 495 militants on Israel's wanted list in the West Bank have signed a pledge of nonviolence. Officials are continuing to meet with armed groups, in hopes of persuading more gunmen to sign.

Yesterday, the cease-fire was put to the test after Israeli forces shot and killed a Palestinian militant in the Balata refugee camp, near the West Bank city of Nablus. Like Aqra'a, Ebrahim Smeri, 22, was a member of the Martyrs Brigades.

The circumstances of the shooting were unclear. According to Israeli news reports, the army thought the militant was plotting an attack. When Israeli forces entered the refugee camp to arrest him, he opened fire and soldiers shot him. Camp residents said Israeli troops fired first.

Members of the militant group were meeting last night to discuss a response.

"We have the right to respond to any attack on our people," said Aqra'a, 30, during an interview yesterday afternoon at a Ramallah cafe.

Aqra'a, a stocky man with narrow eyes, gelled hair and sideburns, sipped coffee and smoked a cigarette as he explained how just a few months ago he would have retaliated for the killing of a fellow Al Aqsa member. Now, he must try to remain patient, as demanded by the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

It is not easy, Aqra'a said.

"We are still under occupation," he said. "But we think this is an opportunity for Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority to achieve something."

Abbas' plan to hand out jobs in exchange for peace is perhaps his most dramatic step to date to reach his goal of starting serious negotiations.

Initially, he called for militants to hand in their weapons in exchange for jobs. But the outcry from militant groups forced Abbas to abandon that proposal and instead ask them to keep their guns out of sight.

"We are not carrying guns for a hobby. We are using them to fight for our rights," said Muneef Al-Rimawi, 27, another member of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who signed the pledge this week. "Once a final truce is reached, then there is no need for guns."

Because Abbas has compromised, Israeli officials accuse him of not doing enough to rein in Palestinian gunmen.

In a meeting this week with President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon raised doubts about Abbas' commitment to peace, noting a Palestinian faction that fired mortar shells and rockets at Jewish settlements in Gaza after the killing of three Palestinian teens by Israeli forces.

Abbas is scheduled to meet with Bush next month, and appears determined to demonstrate that the security situation is under control.

Yesterday, Abbas made a move in that direction by announcing that Palestinian security forces will be consolidated under a single command.

Israel and the United States have long pressed the Palestinians to reform their dozen or more competing security agencies, the better to end violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But the new security arrangement would require Palestinian security forces to act against militant groups, something many Palestinians might refuse to do.

Aqra'a, who is now paid about $350 per month as a member of the security forces, said he would never arrest let alone shoot a member of his militant group.

"If I were asked to, I would have to resign," he said.

Mahmoud Halabi, 26, another former militant who signed the nonviolence pledge, disagreed.

"To maintain law and order, I would arrest anyone, even if it is my own father," said Halabi, who is wanted by Israel for planning a suicide bombing and attacks on Jewish settlers.

Halabi and Aqra'a might never be put to that test. Since signing the pledge, the two former militants say they have not been asked to perform any duties. Both suspect that because of their militant pasts, they will be paid to stay out of trouble.

"The Palestinian Authority doesn't want us to do anything," Aqra'a said.

So after years on the run, they are taking it easy.

During four years in hiding, Aqra'a had no visits from his wife or two children.

"It was like prison," he said. "Everything is new for me. My two children did not recognize me."

Halabi, a college student studying law when he joined the militant group, wonders now about finishing his degree.

"I can't get rid of the life I lived the last four years," Halabi said. "I need to get back to a normal life."

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