The new Palestinian leadership on Thursday banned civilians from carrying weapons and indicated it will appoint a new security minister known for his tough stance against militants -- clear signs of seriousness about reining in violence, an Israeli precondition for peace talks.
The Palestinians came in for praise from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who said Thursday that conditions are right for a breakthrough toward peace.
Before the weapons ban was announced, Sharon said he was "very satisfied" with the actions of new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has been pressing hard for a declaration by militant groups of a halt to attacks against Israel, ending four years of bloody violence. For now, the militants have agreed to a temporary suspension of violence to test Israel's response.
Also Thursday, Palestinian police prepared to deploy in central and southern Gaza to stop militants from attacking Israelis. The new deployment was set for Friday morning, Palestinian officials said.
In local elections in 10 localities in Gaza on Thursday, meanwhile, the Islamic Hamas movement scored some big victories, according to exit polls, handily defeating Abbas' Fatah party in three of the four communities polled. The Hamas victories reflected widespread support in Gaza for the violent Islamic movement, which provides welfare, schools and kindergartens to residents, alongside its attacks against Israel.
The decree banning Palestinian civilians from holding weapons was a gesture toward Israel and the United States, which have long demanded the disarming of militant groups responsible for attacks that have killed more than 1,000 Israelis. It also sent a message to Palestinians that the Abbas regime will be based on law and order, and that police will not allow militants to strut in public with their weapons.
The decree, issued by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, emphasized the law and order issue, noting "the increase in the number of violent crimes in all the governates because of the chaos of weapons."
Soon after the violence started in September 2000, Israel targeted Palestinian police posts for destruction in response to allegations they were involved in violence. The Israelis declared they would open fire on any armed Palestinian -- in effect disarming the police.
The main result was to weaken the authority of the Palestinian police forces. The vacuum was filled by large militant groups, like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, as well as small armed gangs who ruled neighborhoods by force of arms, often clashing among themselves.
The northern West Bank town of Jenin is a well-known center of militant groups and gangs, and police have no authority there. Residents say they live in fear.
"I feel insecure with guns in the hands of the people on the street," said Wissam Asaadi, 40. "I am worried about the security of my children and my home," he said. "For me, personal safety is more important than the national goals" of an end to the occupation and creation of a Palestinian state.
Samar Aghar, 30, recounted violence she witnessed Thursday in Nablus. "I was in the market today and I saw five gunmen shooting randomly in the center," she said. "They were stopping cars, looking for somebody and firing their guns in a way that was frightening the children. I left the street and went home immediately."
She added, "I hate the uprising and I hate politics. Weapons should be kept well out of peoples' hands. I'm eager to see the Palestinian Authority restore law and order."
Abbas has said repeatedly he will not crack down on militant groups, preferring negotiation. It appeared the first target of the weapons ban was criminal activity, while militants would be advised to keep their weapons out of sight.
A Palestinian official said Abbas and Qureia will name Nasser Yousef as the new Palestinian interior minister. Yousef was in charge of cracking down on militants in the mid-1990s, and his appointment would send another message that the Palestinian leadership intends to rein in violence.
The Palestinian security council also decided Thursday to retire 1,076 police offers to make room for a new generation of officers.
From 1995 until the current uprising erupted, Palestinian police patrolled the cities and towns of the West Bank, and Israel's military deployed at the edges of the West Bank and around Jewish settlements.
After a series of bloody suicide bombings in 2002, Israel sent its forces back into the West Bank and retook the main towns and cities.
Palestinians hope the new trend toward calm will result in an Israeli pullback to pre-uprising positions.
Training for deployment, three police jeeps carrying armed police officers in full uniform drove down the main street of the southern town of Khan Younis on Thursday. In a practice run, officers set up a checkpoint on the main road, while a commander instructed them on how to conduct security checks.
Speaking at a convention of building contractors in Tel Aviv Thursday evening, Sharon said, "I believe that the conditions are now ripe to allow us and the Palestinians to reach a historic breakthrough in the relations between us."
Sharon said if the Palestinians continue their present trend, Israel could coordinate its Gaza withdrawal with them. Originally Sharon planned the summer pullout as a unilateral step.
Palestinians said Israel would release several hundred of the 7,000 prisoners it is holding as a goodwill gesture before a summit, but Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said there was no firm arrangement yet.