GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, (AP) -The Palestinian Authority carried out its first executions since 2001 Sunday, killing four convicted murderers as part of a new campaign to rein in lawlessness and chaos, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.
The four men executed were sentenced to death by a Palestinian court, said Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas signed the execution orders on Saturday, he added. Three of the men were hanged and one was executed by a firing squad.
Palestinian security forces have been greatly weakened during more than four years of fighting with Israel, leading to lawlessness in Palestinian towns and cities. Armed men and militants roam the streets with impunity, at times opening fire on rival factions and security forces.
Abbas, who was elected in January following the death of longtime leader Yasser Arafat, has made the restoration of law and order a top priority. But his security forces still don”t have the strength or authority to take on armed groups.
On Saturday, 40 gunmen attacked a security headquarters in Gaza City, provoking a shootout with Palestinian security officers that continued for three hours. A short while later, gunmen opened fire near the home of a senior Palestinian security chief. Two days earlier, gunmen sparked a firefight when they refused to identify themselves at a Palestinian checkpoint.
The Palestinian Authority has had the death penalty in place since its establishment in 1994. However, Arafat halted the death penalty in 2001 after criticism by international human rights groups.
Sunday”s executions by Abbas, under intense internal pressure to stamp out the rampant crime, appeared to be an attempt to deter criminals and send a message to the public without confronting the militants.
"There is a new policy of enforcing the law, to face and fight the chaos and lawlessness in the Palestinian territories," Abu Khoussa said.
The Israeli human rights group B”tselem urged Abbas to halt further executions. "We condemn this. It”s clearly a violation of the right to life, especially in the context of the inability to receive a fair hearing," said spokesman Sarit Michaeli.
Some 51 Palestinians are on death row, about half of them alleged collaborators with Israel. Palestinian officials said last month they have suspended plans to execute the collaborators, fearing their deaths would inflame tensions with Israel.
The executions came a day after Foreign Minister Nasser Al Kidwa said Palestinian security forces would not disarm militant groups so long as Israel”s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip continues.
The comment infuriated Israeli officials, who accused the Palestinian Authority of absolving itself of its commitments under the U.S.-backed road map peace plan. The plan calls for the Palestinians to dismantle armed groups, while also requiring Israel to halt settlement activity — steps neither side has taken.
"The dismantling of armed organizations is not on the table because weapons are legal as long as the occupation exists," Al Kidwa told Palestinian television, according to a transcript released Saturday by his office. "Possession of weapons is a strategic issue as long as there is occupation."
Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said the Palestinians were destroying chances of renewing peace talks, and vowed the army would fiercely fight militants if the Palestinians refuse to do so themselves.
"The refusal of the Palestinian Authority to disarm the terror groups drops a cluster bomb on the process that could lead to negotiations and quiet," Olmert told Israel Radio. "Very simply, either they will fight terrorism or we will fight terrorism."
Al Kidwa”s comments marked the first time a Palestinian official openly said militants would not be disarmed.
Until now, Abbas has refused to confront the militants with force. Instead, he has tried to persuade them to lay down their weapons in exchange for jobs and a role in Palestinian decision-making.
Palestinian lawmaker Qadoura Fares said it is worrisome that armed people wander freely through Palestinian streets. But the most Abbas can do at the moment is co-opt the groups, he added.
"The Palestinian Authority security structure cannot withstand such a provocation, gathering the arms from the groups," Fares said. "It is possible in a phased manner to reach the same goal in agreement with all the groups."
Meanwhile, Israel closed crossing from the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Sunday ahead of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot — the days Jews mark getting the Torah. The holiday begins Sunday evening and ends Monday night. Israel often prevents Palestinians from traveling into Israel during Jewish holidays.
The army said there was intelligence information that Palestinian militant groups are planning attacks during the holiday, when masses of Israelis are expected to celebrate in public places.