JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel allowed Palestinian security forces in the West Bank to receive a shipment of about 1,000 Kalashnikov rifles and tens of thousands of bullets in a step aimed at bolstering the moderate Palestinian government there, an Israeli defense official said Friday.
Shipments of this type remain sensitive for Israel because weapons provided to Palestinian security forces during peace talks in the 1990s were used against Israelis when those talks broke down in violence in 2000. But balancing those concerns are fears that if moderate forces are too weak they might lose control of the West Bank to Hamas, the hardline Islamic group that seized power in the Gaza Strip last year.
The weapons shipment reached the Palestinians through Jordan about one week ago, the Israeli official said. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arranged the transfer when they met August 31, he said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make the shipment public, though it seemed likely Israeli authorities wanted the information in the open.
Israel is under pressure to at least appear to be supporting Abbas as part of U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations. However, critics both at home and abroad say Israel has not carried out key confidence-building measures, such as halting settlement activity and dismantling roadblocks, that could help the negotiations succeed.
The Palestinians, for their part, have been criticized for not doing enough to crack down on militants – which is also seen as key to the talks’ success.
Abbas adviser Nimr Hamad and Diab Ali, a West Bank security commander, denied knowledge of the weapons transfer.
Israel has approved similar shipments in the past, and is allowing Abbas’ security forces to assume a larger role in some parts of the West Bank. But Israel’s military maintains overall control of the West Bank and of its border crossings with Jordan, including the Allenby Bridge terminal where the weapons crossed into the territory, according to the Israeli official.
In current peace talks between Israel and Abbas’ government, Israel is insisting that a future Palestinian state be demilitarized. The Palestinians are balking, and the issue is emerging as one of a number of sticking points in the negotiations, according to Palestinian officials close to the talks.
Also on Friday, around 90,000 Muslims congregated at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem for the first communal prayers of the holy month of Ramadan, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. He said “thousands” of police were deployed around the city to prevent any disturbances.
Citing security concerns, police restricted the entry of Palestinians, banning men under 45 and requiring many women to produce valid entry permits. In the past, some Friday services at the site – sacred to both Muslims and Jews – have ended in riots.
At one checkpoint north of Jerusalem, Palestinians threw stones at troops, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades. No injuries were reported.
By MATTI FRIEDMAN , Associated Press
Last update: September 5, 2008 – 7:26 AM