Israel to free 250 Palestinian prisoners

Updated: 2007-07-17 01:12

Israel will free 250 Palestinian prisoners later this week nearly all of them from the Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister said Monday.

Palestinian women holds framed pictures of relatives held in Israeli jails during a weekly protest demanding the release of prisoners outside the Red Cross office in Gaza City Monday, July, 16, 2007. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were to meet in Jerusalem Monday, with the international community looking over their shoulders and trying to nudge the two sides to talk about the core issues blocking the way to a fully-fledged peace treaty and Palestinian statehood. Olmert recently pledged to free 250 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails and improve life in the West Bank, where Abbas' Fatah rules, while Hamas holds sway in the politically and economically isolated Gaza Strip. [AP]

The release, intended to bolster Abbas in his struggle against the Islamic militant Hamas, will take place Friday, said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman. He said 85 percent of the prisoners would come from Abbas' Fatah faction, with the rest from smaller Palestinian parties. None will come from Hamas, he said.

Israel announced the release after a meeting between Olmert and Abbas. Both sides described the talks as positive, although Palestinian officials expressed hope the talks could soon move onto more substantive issues.

Israel has been trying to boost Abbas since Hamas routed his forces and violently took control of the Gaza Strip last month. Abbas dissolved a coalition with Hamas and formed a new moderate government based in the West Bank. Abbas' new government has been embraced by the West, while Gaza faces deep isolation.

The planned release is the latest step taken by Israel to help Abbas. It also has unfrozen more than $100 million in Palestinian tax funds, offered amnesty to nearly 200 Fatah gunmen in the West Bank, and scaled back arrest raids against Palestinian militants.

Olmert's spokesman, Jacob Galanti, said none of the prisoners has been directly involved in deadly attacks on Israelis, although some are connected to violent groups. He said all prisoners would have to sign a pledge renouncing violence or face even tougher prison terms.

Olmert first promised the prisoner release at a summit with Abbas in Egypt last month. But the deal was held up while Israeli security officials finalized a list of people who could be freed. Israel holds some 10,000 Palestinian prisoners. The list of prisoners is expected to be published Tuesday after getting final approval by a committee of Cabinet ministers, officials said.

Olmert and Abbas also agreed to meet again in two weeks, most likely in the West Bank town of Jericho, Galanti said. It would be the first meeting of the men on Palestinian territory. However, past pledges for them to meet in the West Bank have not been carried out.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, a participant in Monday's meeting, said it was positive. "We welcome the release of any Palestinian prisoners," he said, while urging Israel to free even more.

But he said Abbas urged the Israelis to expand their contacts and restart talks on a final peace agreement. Abbas has repeatedly urged Israel to resume talks aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state. Negotiations broke down six years ago after the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising.

Miri Eisin, another Israeli government official, said the leaders discussed how to best realize the vision of "the Palestinian state and the Israeli state side by side in security and peace."

Under U.S. prodding, Israel has agreed to discuss the outlines of a final peace agreement but said it is premature to launch full-fledged negotiations in the current climate. Israeli officials said Abbas must first build up his strength in the West Bank.

"We can say that it was a good beginning. I don't want to raise anyone's expectation," Erekat said.

In comments published Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said goodwill gestures without serious negotiations for a binding peace are pointless. He said even the most contentious issues can be resolved through talks.

"Who are we supposed to have an agreement with? Ourselves?" Fayyad told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Of course a solution has to be agreed by Israel."

President Bush planned to announce new financial and diplomatic support for Abbas later Monday. The White House has already asked Congress for $86 million to bolster Abbas' security forces.

Erekat urged Bush to follow up his promises with concrete action. "In order to restore credibility and integrity to the peace process, the people of this region, Palestinians and Israelis, must start seeing deeds and not merely words," he said.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called Abbas' meeting with Olmert a "disgrace" and accused the Palestinian leader of "coordinating with the occupation against Hamas."

The activity comes ahead of a meeting of the "Quartet" of Mideast peace makers in Portugal on Thursday. The Quartet members the U.S., EU, United Nations and Russia will confer with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the first time since he was named a special envoy to the region.

While working to boost Abbas, the international community has isolated Hamas-run Gaza. Israel has sealed the area's borders, allowing little more than food, basic supplies and humanitarian aid into the impoverished, densely populated coastal area.

At Monday's talks, Israel promised to continue to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, officials said. They said all deliveries would be coordinated with aid groups or private individuals in Gaza, and there would be no contacts with Hamas.

In Gaza, about 20 farmers protested outside the parliament building, blocking a road with eight trucks packed with tomatoes. Farmer Abed Abu Mustafa said the drivers were supposed to deliver the produce to a canning factory but fear they won't be paid because the factory shut down last week.

"The tomatoes might as well rot in the sun," Abu Mustafa said.

Some 80 percent of Gaza's factories have temporarily shut down in the past month after Israel closed border crossings, human rights groups and Palestinian industrialists say. The U.N. has said Gaza may become completely dependent on aid within weeks if the borders stay closed.

As part of its efforts to help Abbas, Israel has also granted a Palestinian request for PLO guerrilla chief Nayef Hawatmeh to return to the West Bank from exile in Syria to attend a meeting of the group's top policy-making body this week.

In Damascus, Hawatmeh's office said he had decided not to attend the meeting. His group, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestinians, said it "rejects any Israeli conditions" on the visit.

The DFLP is loathed in Israel for carrying out a 1974 raid on a school in the northern town of Maalot in which 24 Israelis were killed, most of them children.

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