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Palestinians enforce ban on all weapons in public

Israel grounds peace talks until the militants disarm

JERUSALEM — Palestinian authorities began enforcing a ban on public displays of weapons Thursday, arresting three people and confiscating the guns of off-duty police officers in a key step toward imposing order in the chaotic Gaza Strip.

The crackdown came as dozens of Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank held municipal elections. The powerful Hamas movement was expected to make strong gains, despite a continuing Israeli offensive against Islamic militants.

Pressing forward with its military campaign, Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinian gunmen during raids in the West Bank. Israel launched the wave of airstrikes and arrest raids last weekend in response to Gaza militants' rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns.

The offensive raised pressure on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to act against militant groups and armed gangs, which operate openly in Gaza. Israel says there can be no peace talks until the groups are disarmed.

In a move to bring order to Gaza, Palestinian officials on Thursday announced a ban on public displays of weapons, and Hamas said it would honor it.

The Palestinian police chief, Ala Husni, said that in the wake of Israel's recent pullout from Gaza there is no longer a reason for anyone other than security officers to carry weapons.

"The role of resistance weapons has ended in the streets. They should go back into storage and they should not show up in the streets," he told a news conference. "Any weapon now in the street is a criminal weapon." He said there were no plans to seize stored weapons.

Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said authorities arrested three men carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles Thursday and confiscated their weapons. Several security officers also were arrested for carrying guns while off duty, he said.

Abbas said the weapons ban was a first step to imposing law and order on Gaza, but the new Israeli offensive undermined those efforts.

"This escalation is putting the entire peace process in real jeopardy," he said Thursday. "We call on Israel to stop these acts, especially since all our factions have committed themselves to the cease-fire and to ban all military parades and public displays of weapons."

The ban went into effect days after an explosion at a Hamas parade killed 21 people. Hamas blamed Israel, but Palestinian investigators said the blast was set off when militants mishandled explosives.

Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri said the group would honor the ban on displays of weapons and parades, but ruled out surrendering weapons.

Israeli officials said they wanted to see whether the pledge would be honored. Previous campaigns to control gunmen have failed.

"The question that many Israelis have on their minds is whether this is cosmetic or is this a substantial move in the right direction. Of course we very much hope it is the latter," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

Abbas has urged militants to give up their weapons, but rejects Israel's demand that he confront the groups.

Also Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reaffirmed his support for the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, trying to dispel speculation he is formulating an alternative.

Sharon, who led Israel's Gaza pullout, spoke a day after confidants suggested he might carry out a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, while annexing others. The road map calls for a negotiated peace deal.

"Yesterday, there were rumors that Israel is considering other plans," Sharon told an economic conference. "Israel is not considering other plans. There is only one plan, and that is the road map."

In the meantime, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Thursday ordered the offensive, code-named "First Rain" to continue until at least next week, security officials said.

Israel has carried out airstrikes in Gaza and arrested hundreds of suspected militants in the West Bank since launching the offensive Saturday.

Hamas and other militant groups have pledged to halt the rocket fire that prompted the offensive. But militants fired an anti-tank missile and two rocket-propelled grenades Thursday into southern Israel, causing no injuries, the army said.

Early Thursday, Israeli soldiers raided the West Bank towns of Jenin and Burqin to arrest suspected militants. In Burqin, troops killed two armed men — the targets of the arrest raid — who appeared about to fire on the force, the army said. Palestinians said the men belonged to Islamic Jihad.

In Jenin, a militant fired at soldiers, who shot back and killed him, the army said. Palestinians said the man was a militant with the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a group linked to Abbas' Fatah party.

The Al Aqsa leader in Jenin, Zakariya Zubeydi, said his group would no longer abide by the 7-month-old truce with Israel. "We will fight back hard and there will be no limits to our responses from now on," he said.

Hamas was expected to make a strong showing in elections in 82 West Bank towns and villages. The results could indicate Hamas' strength ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for January.

Israel objects to Hamas' participation in the elections. Abbas says allowing Hamas to field candidates will lead to its transformation into a political party.