Israel to release 900 Palestinian prisoners

Friday, February 4, 2005

JERUSALEM -- Senior Israeli Cabinet ministers on Thursday approved the release of 900 Palestinian prisoners and the handover of the West Bank town of Jericho to Palestinian control in coming days -- gestures meant to build goodwill ahead of next week's Mideast summit.

The Palestinians had hoped for broader concessions that could bolster Palestinian support for newly elected leader Mahmoud Abbas' peace efforts. Regardless, both sides said they remained hopeful the summit in Egypt next week would produce a cease-fire declaration to formally end more than four years of fighting.

In new violence Thursday, two militant attacks -- one in Gaza and one in the West Bank -- wounded six Israeli soldiers and left one of the Palestinian attackers dead.

A joint declaration to end the violence is one of the first requirements in the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, which was launched with great hopes at a summit in Jordan in 2003 but quickly stalled amid continued attacks. The "road map," a phased peace plan, calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state this year.

Sharon told his security Cabinet it is still premature to talk about restarting road map negotiations.

"We are not talking about peace now, and not about the road map, but rather about phases that come before the implementation of the road map," Sharon said, according to participants in Thursday's meeting.

No new peace talks

Israeli officials say Sharon does not want to begin new peace talks now, fearing they will interfere with his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements this summer.

A meeting Thursday night between Sharon aide Dov Weisglass and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat exposed deep differences in expectations for the summit, according to Israeli officials.

Palestinians said they wanted it to be the beginning of a new political process to end the conflict; Israel wants the summit only to deal with security issues, the officials said.

Palestinians also wanted more extensive goodwill gestures from Israel, including a wider prisoner release and Israeli withdrawal from more towns, Palestinian officials said.

Israeli government spokesman David Baker said the Israeli concessions were made "despite scores of terror-related incidents in Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority has not made one meaningful arrest."

Participants at the security Cabinet meeting said 500 prisoners would be released shortly after Tuesday's summit. The remaining 400 prisoners would be freed within three months.

Abbas has made the release of the 7,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel a top priority. Upon news of the planned release, he voiced hope that senior prisoners would be among those freed. The Palestinians have criticized past Israeli releases, saying they were insufficient and often included Palestinians whose terms were nearly over.

"We don't know the real figures and what kind of prisoners they are going to release. But what we are interested in is that the first round be a big one and include a lot of prisoners, particularly those who have served long prison terms," Abbas said in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Haim Ramon, a member of Israel's security Cabinet, said those to be released have sentences ranging from under a year to three or four years, and none were involved in attacks on Israelis. Israeli hawks criticized the release, but Ramon said it was necessary to build Palestinian support for Abbas and prevent a new "cycle of blood."

The decision to withdraw only from Jericho also fell short of expectations that Israel would approve a pullout from five West Bank towns. Israel decided earlier this week to slow the planned troop pullout after a brief flare-up of violence.

The Jericho pullout was considered largely window-dressing. Israeli troops have only entered the quiet town a few times to make arrests.

Under the new arrangements, troops would need Palestinian approval before entering the town, and Palestinian police would be allowed to carry weapons, Israeli security sources said. Roadblocks around Jericho are expected to remain in place, they added.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the security Cabinet that Bethlehem, Qalqiliya and Tulkarem would be handed over next, followed by Ramallah, the Palestinians' center of government, participants said.

The military also planned to remove some roadblocks that make travel tortuous for many Palestinians in the West Bank and to reopen the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel, which was closed last month after militants killed six Israelis, participants said.

Mofaz emphasized that all the measures are reversible, apparently addressing concerns by hawkish ministers.

The Israeli ministers also approved an earlier decision by the army chief to halt the targeted killings of wanted Palestinian militants and agreed to form a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee to decide what to do about them.

Earlier in the day, both sides sounded optimistic about truce prospects.

"I hope that a cease-fire will be declared, a halt to all violent acts," Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Army Radio.

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