Palestinians call off summit with Israel

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

JERUSALEM -- The Palestinians called off a summit this week with the Israeli prime minister to show their dissatisfaction with Israel's plans for a prisoner release. One Palestinian lawmaker Tuesday warned of a "major crisis," calling for quick U.S. intervention.

The U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan has hit a series of snags in recent days, leading to the cancellation of the planned meeting between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The move protested an Israeli plan to release some 440 Palestinian inmates on Wednesday. Israel is not required under the road map to free prisoners, but Abbas has made it a key condition for further progress on the plan.

Palestinians were dissatisfied with the planned release, saying the list contained few long-serving detainees. Israel holds some 7,700 prisoners and is loathe to release many of them while Palestinian militant groups are still armed -- and the cease-fire they declared on June 29 is still considered temporary.

Legislator Saeb Erekat, a leading spokesman for the Palestinians, called for U.S. involvement to avert "the development of a major crisis."

"I believe that the only way to defuse this crisis is with the intervention of the American administration to ensure the implementation of the first phase of the road map," he said.

U.S. envoy John Wolf has been in the region since Friday, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian security officials. A U.S. government official said that Assistant Secretary of State William Burns will be arriving next week. But the official said no other high-level visits were planned even though the peace plan was encountering "very rough going."

Both sides have not carried out obligations: For example, the Palestinians have not moved to disarm militants, and Israel has not frozen construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza or dismantled scores of unauthorized outposts. Israeli troops also remain in control of most West Bank towns.

Erekat reiterated a Palestinian desire for the deployment of monitors to guarantee and verify progress in the peace plan, which calls for an end to violence and a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip by 2005.

Both sides have turned to Washington to play a pivotal role in negotiating peace. Sharon and Abbas held separate summits with President Bush in late July, each seeking support for their positions. Sharon and Abbas last met on July 20.

Palestinian demands

Abbas met in Gaza Tuesday with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders. Afterward, spokesmen of the two groups demanded the release of all Palestinian prisoners and said they did not discuss extending their truce because of Israeli violations.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Nafez Azzam backed Abbas' decision to call off his meeting with Sharon.

"There is no reason to have meetings with the Israelis while they are continuing their aggression against our people," he said.

Israel has resisted quick movement on the peace plan, demanding that Palestinian forces dismantle militant groups and confiscate illegal weapons as required under the road map. Palestinians argue a confrontation with the militants could lead to civil war.

Israel on Monday rolled back a commitment to withdraw from two more West Bank towns after gunmen ambushed an Israeli car the night before, wounding four Israelis. Israel said the transfers would not go ahead until the Palestinians take action against the shooters.

Militants from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which is affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.

A senior Israeli security official said Tuesday that there have been 178 attacks since June 29, including 118 gunfire incidents. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said many of the recent attacks carried out by Al Aqsa militants were funded and directed by Iran.

Prison list

On Monday, Israel published a list of 342 security prisoners and 97 criminal inmates it plans to free, including some members of Hamas and Jihad.

The army said most of the prisoners would be released Wednesday afternoon, dropped off at four checkpoints in the West Bank and one in Gaza. The plan was met with skepticism by many Palestinians who said that the bulk of the prisoners were being released shortly before their sentences were to end anyway.

"For me as a father I hope that all the prisoners are released and not just Hussein," said Salman Abu Eid, whose son Hussein was to be freed after serving 13 years of his 15-year sentence for belonging to Islamic Jihad.

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