Holding of Palestinian prisoners prompts U.S., Egypt mediation

Thursday, July 10, 2003

JERUSALEM -- U.S. and Egyptian mediators met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Wednesday amid an impasse over Palestinian prisoners held in Israel that threatens to torpedo the brittle, 11-day-old Mideast cease-fire.

Top Israeli and Palestinian officials both expressed continued support for the cease-fire, but each side said the other must take further steps. The spiritual leader of the Hamas militant group also said the truce would continue, but warned that patience was running out over the prisoners.

Palestinians are insisting on the release of the estimated 7,000 prisoners held in Israel, most on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. Palestinian officials argue this would provide credibility to the moderate government of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Holding back killers

Israel has decided to release about 400 prisoners; officials say anyone involved in killing Israelis would not be freed and note that the "road map" peace plan does not mention the issue. They fear that a mass release of prisoners would strengthen Palestinian terror groups.

The United States has not taken a public stand on the prisoner issue -- but in a move underscoring its support for Abbas, the Bush administration approved the release of $20 million in direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas threatened to resign Tuesday unless his Fatah party backed his tactics in talks with Israel. He also submitted his resignation from a key position within Fatah -- which was refused. He said he did not plan to step down as prime minister.

Abbas said the prisoners must be quickly released and Israel should withdraw from additional Palestinian cities.

"All of the Palestinian parties are committed to the truce (and) will continue to be committed to it, but we expect and hope from the Israeli side that it will stop its violations," he told reporters.

Israeli forces have already withdrawn from key parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

It was not clear whether Israel was considering broadening its prisoner releases, or take any other steps to maintain the momentum of what some are calling a renewed Mideast peace process.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer that Israel was committed to the peace process, but cautioned that Israeli intelligence is still receiving warnings of possible terror attacks, an official said.

Israel has said it will not free members of the militant Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin warned that this "is a red line which we cannot pass." Speaking after a meeting with Egyptian security officials in the Gaza Strip, Yassin said his group remained committed to the truce, but warned that "patience is limited" and his group expected its prisoners to be released.

The Egyptian officials also met with the other two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Islamic Jihad. Before the meetings, they said they would urge them to maintain the cease-fire.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Nafez Azzam charged that Israel is sabotaging the truce by continuing its military operations. The truce "is not going to be free and is not going to be forever," Azzam said after meeting the Egyptians.

Also Wednesday, U.S. Middle East envoy John Wolf met with Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan and a diplomat indicated that meetings with Israeli officials were also planned.

Wolf is "exploring ways of how to advance the peace process, how to speed it up, how to move it along," Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said.

Officials refused to give other details.

Despite the cease-fire there have been sporadic incidents of violence in the area.

Overnight, Israeli soldiers overnight shot and killed a 27-year-old man and seriously wounded his 26-year-old wife during an operation in the West Bank to arrest the man's brother, a Fatah member, Palestinian sources said.

The Israeli army confirmed soldiers shot a gunman during an arrest.

In a letter to Arafat, Abbas said he would step down as prime minister unless he received clear instructions from Fatah over how to handle negotiations with Israel.

Fatah officials said Abbas' move is likely a tactic aimed at forcing the organization to give him greater flexibility in talks.

In Israel, some were calling for a reassessment on the prisoners as well.

Commentator Gideon Samet argued that Israel should carry out a mass release because "there's a need for daring symbols of detente" even if there are risks involved. Writing in the Haaretz daily, he warned that without such gestures the cease-fire may collapse.

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