JERUSALEM – Scores of battle-hardened Palestinians signed pledges to renounce violence against Israel and turned in their weapons Sunday, accepting the Israeli government’s first collective offer of clemency in 14 years for gunmen listed as wanted terrorists.
Israeli officials said the offer went out selectively, to 178 Fatah militiamen, in the expectation that they would join the regular Palestinian security forces and turn full attention to disarming the rival Hamas movement, the Jewish state’s intractable enemy.
By day’s end, Palestinian officials said they believed that all those on the clemency list had agreed to terms of the deal, which also aims to bolster a moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank and help advance peace talks between its leader and Israel.
“They have deactivated themselves as terrorists,” said Miri Eisen, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “They are handing over their guns and, as part of a new security relationship, Israel will not pursue them any more.”
Israel has periodically freed batches of Palestinian prisoners to promote peace talks or get back its captured soldiers. But it has not erased so many Palestinian fighters from its wanted list in a single stroke since the 1993 Oslo peace accord.
That agreement gave a blanket amnesty to guerrillas of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement so they could create a Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Eventually, many took up arms against Israel again, forming the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade at the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.
Israeli officials will not say how many Palestinians are wanted by its security services; until Sunday, the number, from various militant groups, including Hamas, was believed to be in the hundreds. Palestinian officials said the 178 on the clemency list made up about three-fourths of the wanted Fatah members.
The clemency deal stopped short of pardon or amnesty. Israeli officials said they could resume efforts to arrest any of the militiamen and charge them with past offenses if a case-by-case review of their actions over the next three months warranted it.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been lobbying for such an arrangement for months in periodic U.S.-backed negotiations with Olmert.
Initially cool to the idea, Israeli officials embraced it after Abbas turned forcefully against Hamas, his partner in a power-sharing government, following Hamas’ armed takeover of the Gaza Strip a month ago.
Abbas has vowed to disarm Hamas’ clandestine armed wing in the West Bank, now run by a new government loyal only to him. To do that, he has told Olmert, he needs to beef up his Preventive Security force with militants of Al Aqsa, but cannot recruit them out of hiding unless Israeli troops stop hunting them.
Zakariya Zubeidi, the Al Aqsa leader in the often-embattled city of Jenin, said he signed reluctantly.
“I do not trust the Israelis,” he told reporters. “But I am not going to be an obstacle to a political solution.”
Ala Sanakreh, an Al Aqsa commander in Nablus, signed the pledge even though many of his comrades, including his brother, were not offered clemency.
“What will happen if the Israelis come after my brother and kill him?” he asked. “Can I stay quiet?”
Those given clemency pledged not only to refrain from attacking Israel and cut their ties to the militia. They also agreed to restrict their movements in the West Bank to the area of their residence and, for the first week, to give up their cell phones and avoid contact with fellow members of Al Aqsa.
After a three-month trial period, Israeli and Palestinian officials will review the clemency list and consider expanding it. Those who remain free of Israeli suspicion will be allowed travel throughout the West Bank.