(photo credit: AP)
Zakariya Zubeidi, the head of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin, is included on the list of Fatah gunmen to be pardoned, the Prime Minister's Office announced on Sunday.
According to Israel's proposal set to be offered to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, security forces will stop pursuing Zubeidi and another 177 Fatah gunmen in the West Bank as part of an effort to boost the PA chairman's standing.
Zubeidi claimed that the gunmen had vowed to halt attacks on Israeli targets even before Israel's pledge to stop targeting them for arrest. He said that the fugitives made the commitment in order to bolster Abbas and to "stop giving excuses to Israel that there are no partners on the Palestinian side," Israel Radio reported.
Two weeks ago, the IDF killed one of Zubeidi's top operatives in Jenin.
Army Radio quoted the Aksa leader as saying that the deal with Israel had already been signed.
Earlier Sunday, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman (read his JPost blog) said that even after the gesture to Abbas, the PA chairman had no chance of overcoming Hamas and "any attempt to gamble on him is doomed to failure.
The strategic affairs minister's remarks also followed the permission to allow Nayef Hawatmeh, the Damascus-based leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP,) to travel to Ramallah to participate in a meeting of the PLO's central assembly.
Lieberman went on to say that Israel must seek out another partner since "if we continue to cooperate with Abbas, Hamas will eventually take control of the West Bank too."
He added that "giving hope to terrorists that have killed Jews in cold blood is unacceptable."
IDF warns against pardoning Palestinian gunmen
MK Aryeh Eldad (NU/NRP) also slammed the decision to pardon the Fatah gunmen.
"Whoever thinks that the Fatah gunmen will disarm is naive, whoever believes that they will stop killing Jews is stupid, and whoever tries to strengthen the Tanzim and the Aksa Martyrs Brigades is a criminal," said Eldad.
Meanwhile, former deputy defense minister Efraim Sneh (Labor) expressed his support for the decision to allow Hawatmeh into the West Bank.
Sneh told Israel Radio that the move was made to ensure that the PLO meeting would be held in the West Bank and not in an Arab country.
On Saturday, defense officials told The Jerusalem Post that the fugitive deal was signed by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the Palestinians on Thursday during a meeting Defense Minister Ehud Barak held with senior PA officials close to Abbas.
PMO officials confirmed that the issue was "on the table," but stopped short of saying the deal had been finalized.
The Jerusalem Post reported over two weeks ago, following the four-way summit in Sharm e-Sheikh, that Israel and PA security officials were discussing implementing a clause from the 2005 Sharm e-Sheikh understandings reached between then-prime minister Ariel Sharon and Abbas whereby Israel would stop pursing wanted terrorist suspects in the West Bank if they would forswear terrorism. It was agreed then to discuss the issue, but nothing was ever implemented.
Government officials said Saturday night that if Israel wanted to get the PA to actively fight terrorism, these types of steps were necessary.
Among those supposedly "pardoned" by Israel were top Fatah fugitives who had been wanted by the Israeli security forces for the past decade because of their involvement in terrorism, the officials said, describing the move as a "good step in the right direction."