RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Hundreds of Palestinian gunmen have signed pledges to halt violence in exchange for government jobs, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas hopes to bring many more militants on board before he meets President Bush in May, Palestinian officials said Monday.
The new jobs-for-guns program, which offers the biggest rewards to those who've spent the longest time in Israeli prisons or on the run from the military, is meant to counter Israeli and U.S. complaints that Abbas is doing little to control the armed groups.
The program is the most far-reaching step Abbas has taken so far to rein in militants, and fits in with his desire to control them through dialogue, rather than direct confrontations. The Palestinian leader has promised wide-ranging reform of the security services and recently fired the West Bank security commander, mentioned widely in corruption allegations.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon raised Abbas' perceived foot-dragging in a meeting with Bush on Monday.
While Abbas has begun to act against terror organizations, recent violence against Israel shows that "terror is still continuing" and that Abbas "must take more steps," Sharon said at a joint news conference with Bush in Crawford, Texas.
Sharon sent stern warnings to Abbas after Palestinian militants in Gaza fired dozens of mortar shells and rockets at Israeli settlements in Gaza in response to the weekend killing of three Palestinian teens by army fire.
The jobs program, launched a week ago, was mainly aimed at gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, affiliated with Abbas' Fatah movement. The militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad reiterated Monday that they will not be co-opted but will keep their weapons out of sight and respect a February cease-fire with Israel.
Summoned for interviews
Under the plan, Al Aqsa gunmen will join the security services or be hired by Palestinian Authority ministries. In recent days, committees formed by Abbas summoned hundreds of militants for job interviews and most signed a pledge to respect the law, said Abdel Fattah Hemayel, a Fatah official who oversees the program in the West Bank. Dozens more filled out applications in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath said Abbas wants to go to the United States with security achievements in hand, to shift the emphasis of his meeting with Bush away from U.S. complaints about the militants and toward Palestinian demands, including U.S. pressure on Israel to halt settlement expansion.
Abbas "doesn't want to go to be interrogated," Shaath said. "He wants to go with his demands with regards to Israel."
Israel appears ambivalent toward Abbas' plan and insists the militant groups be dismantled at some point -- as stipulated in the internationally backed "road map" peace plan -- but has not sought to impose a deadline.
"We'll continue to be patient, as we have been until now, but our concern is that ... if he [Abbas] doesn't deal with Palestinian terrorists, they will turn on him," said Daniel Seaman, an Israeli government spokesman.
As part of the truce, Israel decided to stop hunting fugitives, but it continues tracking those it believes pose an immediate danger. On Monday, Israeli troops entered the West Bank city of Nablus and arrested a wanted militant they said had ties with Lebanese guerrillas and planned a bombing attack. In a statement, Palestinian officials called the raid a violation of the truce.
The recruitment committees set up by Abbas initially were asked only to find jobs for those on Israel's wanted lists -- 495 in the West Bank and 28 in Gaza. However, it quickly became apparent that other militants also would have to be lured with a promise of employment.
Hundreds of gunmen have filled out job applications in recent days. Hemayel said jobs would be awarded according to a point system to determine who gets the highest ranks in the security forces and the best positions in the civil service.
A high school diploma, for example, is worth eight points, while a year in an Israeli prison or on the run counts for two points each. Gunmen don't get credit for time served in Palestinian lockups, but they win extra points if they were wounded by Israeli army fire or had their homes demolished.
After filling out a questionnaire, gunmen were asked to sign a pledge to observe the law and all Palestinian Authority decisions, which implies they agree to halt violence.
Nasser Jumma, an Al Aqsa leader in Nablus, a militant stronghold, said he and the vast majority of more than 200 Al Aqsa gunmen in the city have signed the pledge. Jumma, 36, stands a good chance to win a top job: he spent eight years in an Israeli jail and four years as a fugitive.
Palestinian finance minister Salam Fayyad is in touch with the recruitment committee and would have to allocate the money needed for paying hundreds, if not thousands, more salaries. However, the public payroll is already bloated, a legacy of the Yasser Arafat era, and it is not clear where the additional funds would come from.
Hemayel said the gunmen would be disarmed gradually. Former members of the security forces who joined Al Aqsa during the uprising and are now returning to their jobs could keep their government-issue rifles. Those who bought weapons on the black market could sell them to the government, he said.
As part of the nonviolence pledge, the gunmen are asked to list serial numbers of their weapons. Hemayel acknowledged there is no way to know if militants are hiding some of their guns.
Ala Sanakra, a gunman in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, said he'd like to get a job in the Preventive Security Service and has gone for an interview, but he won't register all his weapons.
The future is uncertain, Sanakra said, citing Monday's arrest raid in Nablus which he initially believed targeted him.