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Sharon to release Palestinian prisoners
Updated: 2005-02-10 18:06

Israel's prime minister signaled in a newspaper interview Thursday that he's ready to release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners involved in deadly attacks — a key Palestinian demand — if militants hold their fire during Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.

Sharon said Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas stressed during their meeting earlier this week that the release of long-serving prisoners is a top priority.

"He (Abbas) told me simply that it is a major problem," Sharon told the Haaretz daily. In the past, Israel refused to release those involved in deadly attacks, though in recent days it has said it was willing to consider a few isolated cases.

The newspaper quoted Sharon as saying he told Abbas that if the Gaza withdrawal proceeds smoothly, he would release larger numbers of Palestinians involved in attacks. Israel is concerned that militants will fire on Israeli troops and Jewish settlers during the withdrawal to portray it as a retreat under fire.

Abbas has secured promises from the armed groups that they will observe a truce, and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders declared an end to hostilities at their summit.

But the cease-fire remains fragile.

Early Thursday, Hamas militants fired 25 mortar shells at the Jewish settlements of Newe Dekalim and Gedid in the Gaza Strip. The barrage caused no damages or injuries.

Hamas said on its Web site that it fired the mortars in retaliation for the deaths of two Palestinians on Wednesday. One, a Hamas activist, was killed while handling explosives. The second, apparently a civilian, was shot dead by Israeli troops as he walked near a Jewish settlement in southern Gaza.

Abbas was heading to Gaza on Thursday to try to cement the cease-fire in talks with militant leaders.

The leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad — Khaled Mashaal and Ramadan Shalah — have privately given their word to Egyptian mediators that a truce would be observed, though in public representatives of the militant groups have distanced themselves from Abbas' truce declaration.

Local gunmen have said they would respond with violence to any perceived Israeli violations.

Abbas and Sharon are to meet again by Tuesday, at Sharon's Sycamore Ranch in southern Israel.

Following this week's summit, Israel declared it would relax some restrictions on Palestinian movement.

The Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza was set to open Thursday, enabling some Palestinian laborers to return to jobs in Israel.

The military said 2,000 workers from the West Bank and 1,000 from Gaza, in addition to 500 merchants, would be allowed to cross into Israel, easing a closure clamped on the territories weeks ago after repeated attacks by militants.

Before violence erupted four years ago, more than 100,000 Palestinians used to cross into Israel every day to work, providing a key source of income for poverty-stricken areas. Israel closed the gates as part of its measures to stop suicide bombers and other attackers, but the restrictions — including dozens of West Bank roadblocks — have devastated the Palestinian economy.

Abbas said Wednesday that Israel would not only withdraw from five Palestinian population centers but also remove the roadblocks around them. In past periods of calm, Israel pulled its troops out of the towns but left the surrounding roadblocks in place — in effect quarantining the towns.

Now, an Israeli defense official said, troops will remove the roadblocks near the towns, though the ones blocking entrance from the West Bank into Israel will remain in place.

Israel says it needs the checkpoints to stop suicide bombers and other attackers.

However, in a recent report, the World Bank cited Israeli restrictions on the flow of people and goods as the main cause of economic hardship in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where nearly half of Palestinians live on less than $2 a day.

In the next three weeks, Israel is to hand over security control in the towns of Jericho, Tulkarem, Qalqiliya, Bethlehem and Ramallah. Abbas and Sharon agreed to the timetable Tuesday.

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