Israel to free 400 prisoners today
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (Agencies) â€” Israel will free 400 Palestinian prisoners on Thursday in what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called an attempt to boost moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a Gaza withdrawal.
Palestinian officials dismissed the long-delayed release as a public relations stunt, complaining that Israel refused to give them a say in who would be freed, and prisoners they most wanted to be released would stay in jail. The Israeli army said on Wednesday the mass release stemmed from approval granted earlier this week by the Cabinet and reflected “ongoing cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.”
Israel freed 500 prisoners in February after Abbas and Sharon announced a ceasefire, but Sharon later suspended the promised release of 400 more, saying Palestinians had not done enough to disarm militants.
None of the prisoners slated for release had been convicted of attacks that killed or injured Israelis, officials said. Many were in jail for belonging to groups, possessing weapons or plotting attacks.
The prisoners will be sent home to the West Bank and Gaza Strip through Israeli army checkpoints.
A lawyer representing Israelis who were harmed or had relatives killed in attacks by Palestinian militants said he had filed a court appeal seeking to block the release. “If they didn’t hurt anyone the first time around, does that mean they should be given another chance to do so?” lawyer Zeev Dasberg said.
Sharon has said he wants to bolster Abbas ahead of a pullout from all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank that is slated to begin in August as part of an Israeli plan to “disengage” from conflict with the Palestinians.
The Jewish state is hoping that Abbas, elected to succeed Yasser Arafat on a platform of non-violence, will keep militants from carrying out attacks during the evacuation. Abbas coaxed militants into the shaky truce he agreed with Sharon.
“If this step was aimed at strengthening President Mahmoud Abbas, then it is not enough,” said Sofian Abu Zaydeh, Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs.
“It is a unilateral Israeli step… The Israeli side is still not serious in dealing with us.”
Palestinians say Abbas needs larger-scale releases to preserve the ceasefire that has been marred by sporadic violence.
The Islamic group Hamas, sworn to Israel’s destruction and the biggest rival to Abbas’s Fateh Party, says continuing the truce is partly contingent on prisoner releases.
The prisoner issue is highly emotive for Palestinians, who see the roughly 8,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails as heroes fighting occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Israeli security officials say arrests have helped break up some cells behind suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis during a 4-1/2-year-old Palestinian uprising.
Palestinians say their priority is to secure the release of long-serving prisoners arrested before 1993 Oslo interim peace accords with Israel, in addition to teenagers, women, the sick and elderly, and political leaders.
Meanwhile, officials on Wednesday said Sharon will hold talks with Abbas in the third week of June.
“This summit will be at the beginning of the third week of this month,” chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, told AFP after talks with Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, in Jerusalem.
Sharon’s office said the two would meet on June 21, a date which was agreed in talks between Erekat, Weisglass and Sharon’s special adviser, Shalom Turjeman.
Ahead of the meeting, preparatory talks would be held to discuss implementation of the agreements reached at the joint Sharm El Sheikh summit on February 8, when Sharon and Abbas last met, the statement said.
The talks would also include discussions about coordinating Israel’s withdrawal of all troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.
Erekat said he and Weisglass agreed to reactivate all joint working committees established after the February summit, including those dealing with Palestinian prisoners and security transfers within the West Bank.