Palestinian leader to use 'iron fist' against militants

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas threatened to use force against anyone who violates a ceasefire with Israel, his toughest warning against Palestinian militants since taking office in January.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas threatened to use force against anyone who violates a ceasefire with Israel, his toughest warning against Palestinian militants since taking office in January.

In a speech to Palestinian police, Abbas also pledged to ensure quiet during the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer. “We have to give them a calm departure,” he said, according to a summary of the speech published today by the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, thousands of Israelis streamed into a Jewish settlement to rally against the withdrawal plan.

Abbas has been under heavy pressure from Israel and the US to rein in Palestinian militants, who had a relatively free hand under Abbas’s predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat. But so far, Abbas has preferred to negotiate with the armed groups.

Most of the militants have agreed to observe a truce with Israel. There has been a sharp drop in violence since the ceasefire was declared in February, but militants have fired several rockets at Jewish settlements in Gaza and an Israeli border town in recent days.

One salvo landed near a large gathering of Israeli demonstrators in a Gaza settlement yesterday, lightly wounding a soldier. Today, Palestinian militants fired an anti-tank missile at a settlement and attacked army posts with gunfire and a mortar shell in Gaza, causing no injuries, the army said.

Abbas said such violence cannot be tolerated.

“Whoever wants to sabotage the truce – with rocket fire or shooting – must be stopped by us even if that requires using force,” Abbas said. “There is a national consensus regarding the calm, and whoever leaves this consensus will be struck by an iron fist.”

In his speech, Abbas did not single out any specific militant group. No one has claimed responsibility for the recent rocket attacks, although a tiny group, the Popular Resistance Committees, has said it opposes the ceasefire and is suspected by Israel of being behind some of the violence.

The biggest militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have largely honoured the truce. Hamas appears to be focusing its efforts on Palestinian legislative elections scheduled in July, though earlier this week it rejected Abbas’s call to give up its weapons after the vote.

Israeli military commanders fear Gaza militants will step up attacks as the pull-out approaches, trying to show that they are forcing the Israelis to leave.

Tens of thousands of Israelis opposed to the withdrawal plan demonstrated in Gaza’s largest bloc of Jewish settlements yesterday, a lower-than-expected turnout.

About 10,000 people attended a similar demonstration today in Homesh, one of the four West Bank settlements earmarked for evacuation. Armoured buses packed with demonstrators streamed into the windy hilltop settlement of 55 families, which overlooks a pair of Palestinian villages.

Etti Rosenblatt, a spokeswoman for the settlement, said she opposes withdrawal but is coming to terms with it. ”I’m happy that all of the people have come today. But really it’s too late,” she said.

Israeli authorities fear opposition to the withdrawal could turn violent, particularly in the West Bank, which has special significance for religious Jews. Seventeen religious families have moved into Homesh since Sharon announced his plan to resist the withdrawal.

At yesterday’s rally in Gaza, lawmaker Arieh Eldad had called for stiff resistance to the withdrawal. The remarks drew widespread condemnation today, with officials accusing the legislator of incitement and encouraging violence.

Meanwhile, Israeli troops clashed with hundreds of protesters in the West Bank village of Bilin, slightly wounding more than 20 people, including an Arab-Israeli MP and a photographer. Witnesses said two Palestinians and three Israeli protesters were arrested. Israel recently begun construction of its West Bank separation barrier at the site.

The army said it opened fire with “non-lethal” means to disperse the crowd after demonstrators ignored orders to disperse.

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